If you feel feverish, start coughing, and can’t catch your breath, you might jump to a nightmare conclusion: You’ve come down with COVID-19, the new coronavirus spreading across the globe. Odds are, you’ve caught seasonal influenza or the common cold. But there is a minuscule chance you’ve got the coronavirus, especially if you have recently traveled to China or been in close contact with someone who has.
Panicking won’t help you fight the coronavirus, nor will some of the home remedies or “miracle solutions” advertised on the internet. But there are tested precautions that can help.
Inverse consulted Bruce Ribner, a veteran infectious disease expert who has seen many disease outbreaks come and go, to parse out the best tricks to use and top mistakes to avoid when it comes to COVID-19. There are five tested techniques to avoid getting — or spreading — COVID-19. And “silver solution” is not one of them.
“At this stage, there are somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 people who have died in the United States during this season from influenza," Ribner tells Inverse. "We always try to put this into perspective. If you're not worried about a flu outbreak, then you probably shouldn't be worrying about a COVID-19 outbreak.”
"The average American has zero risk"
“Right now the average American has zero risk of anything occurring to them [from COVID-19]. Now, that may change in the next few months, but I think if they want to protect themselves right now, the best thing they can do is get a flu shot.”
1. Stop freaking out and wash your hands — A key way to avoid picking up the new coronavirus or the flu is wash your hands. Somehow, our preschool-age hygiene lessons may not have sunk in. As CBS News reported, up to 95 percent of people wash their hands improperly, not scrubbing well or frequently enough to kill infection-causing germs and bacteria. That means pathogens from encountering the coronavirus on a doorknob, kitchen counter, or subway pole will linger on the skin, potentially spurring a full-blown infection.
But how much is enough? Take it from the Centers for Disease Control, the United States’ foremost public health authority. The CDC advises washing your hands before/during/after preparing food, eating, using the toilet, caring for a sick person, handling animals and garbage, treating a wound, or changing a diaper. Hitting the sink (20 seconds minimum, with soap) as often as possible is a tried and tested method of keeping germs to a minimum and staying healthy.
For those times where you can’t wash your hands (while riding a crowded bus or out on the street), periodically using hand sanitizer, containing at least 60 percent alcohol, can help.
Keep hands out of your mucous membranes— your eyes, mouth, nose. These openings are like infection superhighways. If you sneeze or cough, let it out into your elbow, not your hand.
2. Clean your phone — Our phones, sometimes our most constant companions, are riddled with germs. Some data shows they’re dirtier than a toilet. And yet, we carry cellphones in our pockets, hold them against our face and mouth, and even carry them to the bathroom. A major way to avoid the pathogens behind the novel coronavirus? Clean or disinfect your phone.
“If you get your hands contaminated and then you don't use an alcohol gel or wash your hands before you use your phone, then your phone becomes a vector and the virus can persist on it for several hours,” Ribner explains.
Use caution when cleaning, he says. You want to apply an alcohol solution or a spray on a cotton pad or microfiber cloth to avoid damaging the quality of the screen or limiting visibility.
3. Wipe down — On top of sanitizing your phone, it’s worth wiping down surfaces — kitchen sinks and counters, doorknobs, desks as well, especially in public areas like an airplane or train seat.
“If you happen to use a phone or something in a common area, then assume that the person who used it before you had either influenza or a COVID-19 infection and wipe down that surface with some sort of disinfecting wipe."
Preliminary data shows the novel coronavirus can live on surfaces for a few hours, depending on temperature and moisture levels, Ribner says.
“Between 60 to 70 degrees Fahrenheit is where viruses are happiest. And viruses, much like bacteria, hate to be dry,” Ribner says. Anywhere warm and moist is the danger zone, fertile ground for COVID-19 to thrive.
4. Avoid the mask mistake — Surgical mask sales are soaring, abroad and even in the United States, despite Americans’ low risk. Pharmacies and online marketplaces report selling out of the products, commonly touted as a common-sense precaution. But it turns out, these masks have serious failings, especially if they aren’t certified.
“Walking around in the street with a mask, as we see in a lot of these news photos, is worthless,” Ribner asserts.
What a lot of people don’t realize is surgical masks only keep out large particles— like those excreted from a sneeze or cough. These particles containing coronavirus only travel about three to six feet from an infected person. So don’t come within that distance of someone exhibiting symptoms of an upper or lower respiratory infection, Ribner cautions. As long as you aren’t getting cozy with strangers on the street, wearing a mask won’t do anything to prevent infection, Ribner says. Keeping your distance does the work already.
"Surgical masks were designed to protect the patient from the surgeon," Ribner says. "They were never really designed to protect the wearer, but they were designed to protect the people around the wearer."
Small particles fit through the gaps in the mask so masks are more useful for containment (keeping those large particles to yourself) if you’re sick already. Masks need to be replaced within an hour or two of use, because of moisture levels.
5. Be wary of alternative solutions or at-home remedies — Across Instagram, message boards, and television, people often hawk alternative therapies — from apple cider vinegar, to “silver solution,” to supplements — claiming to boost immune function. Now, people have started tying these substances to protection against the coronavirus.
“There are alternative treatments and approaches for a reason, and that's because they haven't demonstrated to be effective,” Ribner says. “The bottom line is for the great majority of them, there are no data that they offer any benefit and some of them could be detrimental.”
Ribner advises if you are going to use one of these alternative therapies, to rigorously research them online, visiting evidence-based websites like the FDA, CDC, WHO, Mayo Clinic, or Consumer Reports. It’s also a safe approach to talk with your doctor before trying anything.
The Bottom Line:
Ultimately, Americans’ risk of developing COVID-19 is dwarfed by their risk of getting seasonal influenza. Just this season, the CDC predicts between 14 and 36,000 people will die from the flu. These numbers far outweigh the current health burden of COVID-19, with 14 Americans diagnosed with the virus and zero fatalities.
“It continues to amaze us how totally disinterested, both the media and the public are with this highly lethal disease, influenza. And yet we're getting all bent out of shape about 14 Americans who are basically in pretty good shape with the COVID-19 infection.”
Of course, this could quickly change; COVID-19 could take off and become a pandemic. Ribner thinks we should have a better sense of the scale within the next month.
“We're kind of at the tipping point. If it gets much broader in China, I am not sure that it can be controlled,” Ribner cautions. If the virus takes off, public health officials may be overwhelmed and unable to contain it.
“At this point, it's tough to know which direction this virus is going to take. Now, it's still more or less what SARS was in 2002- 2003, and good public health measures could potentially control it.”