You’re sheltering at home, running your business there, washing hands frequently, and learning not to touch the face. This reduces your risk of infection, but not as much as could be. A systematic approach to keeping the virus that causes COVID-19 (the “Virus”) out of your home will make you safer and give you peace of mind.
TOKYO, JAPAN – MARCH 26, 2020 – Salary men pass by a window with a “wash hands” message. PHOTOGRAPH … [+]
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My wife (an RN) and I tasked ourselves to systematically analyze the ways the Virus can get into the house, and how we can stop it. This starts with a look at the main way the virus is transmitted. Infected people put the Virus in the air when they cough: it rides along with small particles of moisture that they eject, and these particles remain suspended in the air for a period of time (duration unknown) and then settle on surfaces. Infected people also can have the virus on their hands from coughing, touching their faces, or touching infected surfaces.
People can become infected if they breath moisture droplets that contain virus or touch an infected surface and then, before disinfecting their hands, touch their own face, or food that they will eat uncooked. That’s why the authorities advise us to stay six feet away from other people, wash our hands frequently (a good way to disinfect), and not touch our faces.
When we go to stores many of us are now very careful: wearing a mask or bandana and sanitizing hands before and after shopping.
But most people are behaving more normally within their homes, unless a family member is symptomatic or known to be infected. They don’t stay six feet apart (notwithstanding the cartoons about intimacy in the time of COVID) and they don’t wear gloves or disinfect every handle and surface before touching it. They behave as if their homes were safe zones. Relatively speaking, they probably are, but it’s far from airtight. Here are several ways the Virus can come into your home, and four strategies to prevent it.
1. A visitor carries the Virus in. S/he comes into the house while infected or has touched an infected surfaced and not washed hands before entering. S/he then leaves the virus in the house by touching surfaces and door knobs or coughing.
How do we mitigate this? First, ask visitors if they have symptoms before they come, perhaps when you discuss the visit on the phone. This might feel awkward but it’s totally reasonable in the situation we face. Ask them to wash their hands immediately when they enter the house. Watch for COVID-19 symptoms: dry cough, fever, lethargy, and/or difficulty breathing which can manifest in rapid, shallow breath.
Consider not having any visitors until the medical system is able to help everyone who contracts the disease. Right now, people over 60 and anyone with weakness of the immune system or other major body systems have significant risk of dying from COVID-19 for two reasons. They are more likely to become seriously ill, and when COVID cases overwhelm hospitals, the older patients are triaged to “no treatment” status and most of them die. This is happening a large scale in Italy right now: people over age 62 are refused treatment, and most are dying.
It’s been widely observed that many younger people are not observing COVID-19 precautions as rigorously as older people (and sometimes not at all), so they are more likely to be infected or carrying the Virus with them. Inviting younger people, even your adult children, into the house is risky for now.
2. The Virus comes in on your hands or packages when you come home from the store. Washing hands as you leave the store is not enough.
The key to mitigation here is the think rigorously about what is clean and what is dirty (i.e., potentially carrying Virus) as you go through the shopping process. Assume every item in the store is dirty, despite the store’s efforts to sanitize, because you don’t know how well it was sanitized and the status of the people who have touched it subsequently. You want your home to be clean, and your car too. You also want your phone, your wallet, and your credit card to be clean, because you touch them frequently. So, you have to navigate the store visit and bringing purchases home to accomplish this.
My wife’s preferred approach is to sanitize her hands as she enters the store and again before she checks out so that her wallet and/or phone can stay clean. She puts the purchases in the trunk of the car (which becomes dirty) and sanitizes her hands again before touching the door handle and entering the car (so the passenger compartment remains clean). Other strategies are possible: for a quick purchase of a few items I sometimes wear a glove on one hand and use that to touch what’s dirty. I use my clean ungloved hand to touch my credit card or cellphone that I use to pay and the open button for the trunk. After I put my purchases in the trunk, I discard the glove, making both hands clean when I enter the car. The glove on just one hand forces me to think clearly about touching dirty versus clean things.
When we bring purchases home, we designate an area of counter-top to be dirty and put the purchases there. We work together: one person takes purchases out of the bag and either wipes each item with disinfectant or removes outer packaging. The other person puts the clean item away. When we are done, the person doing the dirty work carries packaging material out and then sanitizes the countertop where the packages were placed, any door knobs s/he touched, and his/her hands. We learned this technique from Dr Jeffrey VanWingen.
Where do we get all of that disinfectant? We’ve been using household bleach diluted with water. A gallon of bleach lasts for a long time.
3. The virus comes in on a package from a delivery service. Many people are ordering on-line to avoid the stores, which makes sense. But you don’t know if the delivery person, the packer or their equipment was virus-free.
You could use the approach above for deliveries, and that makes sense for fresh produce or take-out food. If you don’t need the item right away, you can simply put it where no one will touch it for several days, after which the Virus becomes inactive. If the packaging is cardboard or paper, research says the waiting period is only one day; it’s up to three days for hard surfaces like plastic or stainless steel.
4. Always wash your hands immediately after entering the house. You may have touched something dirty outside the house unconsciously, for example, your external door knobs may be dirty because someone in the household touched them on the way in with dirty hands. And, this gets you in the habit of washing your hands frequently.
This may seem like over-reaction, however, we need to take COVID-19 safety seriously. There are 123,000 verified COVID-19 cases in the U.S., and experts guess that the total number of infections is roughly 3x greater: a bit more than 0.1% of U.S. population. This number doubles every 3 days. At this rate of growth, the percent of population infected will reach 1% in ten days and 10% in the following ten days. The odds of an encounter with an infected person are becoming quite significant.
Government and medical leaders are trying to slow the spread of COVID-19 to buy time to scale up treatment capacity and learn how to treat more effectively. Individually we are much better off if we can avoid infection at least until the medical system is better able to take care of us. Making our home, which is now often our workplace, as safe as possible tilts the odds in our favor, and gives us peace of mind in these stressful times.