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The new coronavirus that first emerged in China and is now spreading in several countries has left some Americans suddenly fearful of crowded trains, large gatherings, and communal spaces. Health officials have emphasized that the virus is not spreading widely in the U.S. and that the risk to the general public is low. But the situation is evolving.
Luckily, the same kinds of precautions you’d take to protect yourself from colds and flu will also help reduce your risk of contracting the new coronavirus disease (COVID-19) should it become common inside the U.S., according to Jesse Goodman, M.D., M.P.H., a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Georgetown University.
Here, some of the most important steps to take to stay safe from all sorts of respiratory viruses.
Seriously, Wash Your Hands
There’s a good reason admonitions to wash your hands are so frequently repeated. Handwashing is critical in stopping the spread of respiratory viruses and other bugs, and it’s one of several measures the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends for reducing your risk of COVID-19, flu, and more.
When should you wash your hands? At a minimum, do so after you use the bathroom, before you eat, and after you blow your nose, cough, or sneeze, according to the CDC.
It’s also important to use proper technique. That means not just rinsing your hands for a few seconds in the sink, Goodman says. Use soap and scrub for at least 20 seconds.
In your home, it’s a good idea to regularly clean frequently touched surfaces, like doorknobs, handles, and counters.
Keep Sanitizer Handy
If you’re in a situation where you need to wash your hands but aren’t able to get to a sink—such as after using public transit—an alcohol-based hand sanitizer containing at least 60 percent alcohol is your next best option.
With flu still circulating widely in many states, cleaning your hands after being in crowded spaces or after touching surfaces in public areas makes sense, Goodman says, and “hand sanitizer is a good, portable way to meet that need.”
Along with washing or cleaning your hands, try to avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
“Sometimes you can arbitrarily pick up germs in between hand hygiene cleaning, so it’s key to try to keep your hands away from your face and eyes,” says Connie Steed, M.S.N., R.N., president of the Association for Professionals in Infection Control and Epidemiology (APIC). That’s how viruses can get from your hands into your system, making you sick.
Keep Vaccinations Up to Date
According to the CDC’s latest data, this year’s flu shot has been 45 percent effective, which means it reduces your risk of getting sick from flu by about half. It’s still a good idea to get the vaccine if you haven’t had it yet this season. Even if you do get the flu, the vaccine lowers your chances of having a severe complication.
If you’re 65 or older, or you have underlying health problems such as chronic heart or lung disease, you should also ask your doctor about vaccinations against pneumococcal bacteria, a common cause of pneumonia.
There’s not yet a vaccine against the new coronavirus. And while vaccinations against the flu and pneumococcal bacteria don’t offer protection against COVID-19, says Goodman, they can help in some unexpected ways: In case the new virus does begin to spread widely in the U.S., it’s a good idea to do what you can to stay out of hospitals and doctors’ offices, where you might be more likely to pick up the virus.
Reduce Close Contact
If you’re sick, stay home from work and other social situations. Employers should make sure their employees know they can stay home if they’re ill, Steed says.
And in general, “you should try to avoid people who may be coughing, sneezing, or ill,” says Goodman. (If you have to cough or sneeze yourself, be sure to use a tissue or cough into the crook of your elbow—and clean your hands right after.)
According to the CDC, respiratory viruses are most often spread between people who are 6 feet apart or less, so if you’re concerned, that’s a safe distance to keep in mind.
What's Not Necessary
Using masks. The CDC says that mask use isn’t necessary for healthy people. It’s recommended only for those who are sick themselves and for healthcare workers or others caring for people who have COVID-19.
Avoiding public areas. As the spread of coronavirus progresses, it may become necessary at some point for public health officials to close schools or limit public gatherings. But we’re not there yet, Steed says—there’s no call right now to avoid public places. The best ways to protect yourself are still good hand hygiene and the other strategies listed above.
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