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More and more people are being encouraged to stay close to home, as a way to avoid the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. Maybe a conference you were going to attend was canceled. Or your workplace has asked people to work from home as much as possible.
Still, most of us still need to get out some, to commute to work or school, go to doctor’s visits, or just go grocery shopping. How worried do you need to be about venturing forth? And what steps can you take to protect yourself when you do?
We talked with experts about who should be most worried about going out into the community as well as what precautions are worth taking—and which aren’t.
The Importance of Social Distancing
For now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it’s most important for people at high risk of getting seriously ill from COVID-19—including older adults and those with underlying health conditions—to begin taking social distancing measures.
That means avoiding sick people, steering clear of crowds, and staying home as much as possible if the virus is circulating in your community. We’re likely to see more and more health departments advising these types of measures as the coronavirus spreads, says Jesse Goodman, M.D., a professor of medicine and infectious diseases at Georgetown University, so keep an eye on what your local officials are saying.
The logic behind social distancing rests on two key scientific facts about the virus. First, scientists say that its spread requires close contact—being directly coughed on or sneezed at by someone with the disease, or by being within 6 feet of an infected person for about 10 to 15 minutes or more. Second, the virus can survive on surfaces for hours or even days.
That means the key to avoiding the disease is keeping a safe distance from sick people and, as much as possible, trying to not touch surfaces that may have the virus on them. It also means washing your hands carefully, so you don’t transfer virus to your mouth, nose, or eyes, where it can enter your system.
If you see someone cough or sneeze near you on your morning commute, and you’re more than 6 feet away from them, your risk is probably low, says David Freedman, M.D., a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Alabama at Birmingham.
If an obviously sick person is right next to you, it’s a bit trickier, however. “I’m concerned about this sort of profiling of people who are coughing and sneezing,” says Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., a professor of biology at Simmons University in Boston and an expert in home and community hygiene. “On the other hand, we need to be smart.”
Change your commute time. The New York City health department has advised commuters to, when possible, adjust their work hours—10 to 6, for example, instead of 9 to 5—to avoid the busiest, most crowded times on buses and trains.
Clean your hands as soon as possible after your trip. Surfaces in a public transit setting most likely to harbor the virus are those that are most commonly touched, Scott says, such as the bars you hold on to for balance on the train or bus.
While it might in theory make sense to wipe down those surfaces with a disinfectant before you grab hold of them, it’s not always practical. “It’s impossible to take action on every surface that you come in contact with,” Scott says.
But you should wash your hands as soon as possible after leaving your bus or train. A quick rub with a hand sanitizer makes sense. But even more important is thorough hand-washing—20 seconds with soap and water. And avoid touching your face with your hands, to keep any germs you might have picked up from getting into your system.
Consider other forms of transportation. Another option recommended by New York City is, when possible, to walk or bike to your destination instead of taking public transport.
And if you opt for a rental bike or e-scooter, follow the same precautions as with public transportation, carefully washing your hands after each use. “The virus is not going to jump off the handlebars and jump into your mouth,” says Freedman. Instead, cleaning your hands after you touch the handlebars or any other potentially contaminated surface is probably the best strategy, he says.
Currently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is recommending against travel to certain countries, such as China and Iran, where COVID-19 is widespread. So check the CDC's map of countries with travel advisories before any international trip.
But what about flying to other destinations, that aren’t officially considered to be higher risk? The level of caution you should take depends, in part, on your level of risk when it comes to the new coronavirus.
Consider rescheduling if you are at high risk. That means if you're 60 and up, and especially if you're 80 or older. It also includes people with underlying health conditions, including diabetes, heart disease, and lung disease. People in those risk categories should try to avoid non-essential air travel, particularly long plane rides, said Nancy Messonnier, M.D., director of the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, in a March 9 press briefing.
Keep your distance. If you decide to travel by plane, it’s worth noting that the risk of the disease being spread through its airflow system is relatively low. That’s because the air is continually filtered through a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter, which can trap viruses, Freedman says.
Instead, your risk on the plane, as on a bus or train, is being near someone who is infected. On a plane, that means sitting within two seats—to the side, front, or back—of someone who is ill, research suggests. So if you’re seated that close to someone who is obviously sick, ask if you can change your seat, Freedman says. And with travel down these days, that may be easier than usual.
Practice good hygiene. That includes bringing hand sanitizer with you to clean your hands before eating and after you touch surfaces, such as the door handle on the outside of the restroom or headrests as you walk down the aisle, says Scott at Simmons University. Also consider bringing disinfecting wipes for your food tray and other high-touch surfaces, she says.
Disease can spread quickly inside the close quarters of a cruise ship, as the news about the boats quarantined off the coasts of Japan and San Francisco has shown. For that reason, the CDC now warns against any travel on a cruise ship, particularly for those at higher risk of getting severely ill from COVID-19.
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