Disclaimer: this post was written in March/April 2020. Some information may be outdated now.
How do doctors prevent themselves from getting the coronavirus in daily life? I spoke to several doctors and got their useful tips.
An Australian maxillofacial surgeon who holds both a medical and a dental degree.
A US-trained ER doctor who is manning the health frontline in Taiwan.
And a Taiwanese heart surgeon who regularly hosts public health seminars.
Doctor Say These Work
1) Soap, Water, and 45 seconds of your time
Bottom line: the most effective way to kill germs on your hands, when done correctly.
“The important thing is not how many seconds you wash your hands for, but HOW you wash them,” said a surgeon. If you cover all the areas you need to wash, it should take you at least 45 seconds. See this Google video, or watch it done by the great Alton Brown.
In short, you need to wash your palms, between the fingers, thumbs, under the nails, wrists and the back of your hands. Most soaps work, there is no need to hoard antibacterial ones.
2) Social distancing
Bottom line: the most effective way to stop the virus from spreading.
This means no parties, no jogging on a popular path, no going to the beach, and definitely no grocery shopping when you clearly have enough food to last you a few days, even if you miss your regular cereal or cheese.
3) Face Masks
Bottom line: they definitely work, but have limitations.
Arguably the most debated subject in COVID-19 prevention worldwide is whether face masks are effective. While western countries saw experts telling the public that masks don’t work in the beginning of the pandemic, establishments in Asian countries banned people without masks from entering their buildings during that same period of time. Additional reading: “Why wearing a face mask is encouraged in Asia, but shunned in US”.
While the doctors I spoke to pointed to different limitations of face masks, they all agreed that face coverings work, and that people should definitely wear a mask if they will be within 2 feet of another person who is not from their household.
Why masks work:
1) They decrease the potential viral load you can be exposed to.
While it is true face masks cannot block 100 percent of the virus, not wearing one blocks zero percent of the virus, says an infectious disease specialist. Whether you wear a surgical, cloth or N95 mask, you will be protected at least partially. The smaller the viral load you get, the more likely your immune system will be able to fight it off.
2) They prevent the unintentional spread of the virus, in other words they flatten the curve.
Masks prevent you from unknowingly spreading the virus even if you have become infected already, but don’t know it yet. Likewise, it prevents you from getting the virus from people who may or may not know they have it. “It’s like wearing a condom; you wear one even when you or your partner isn’t confirmed sick,” an ER doctor said.
3) Wearing a mask prevents you from touching your mouth and nose, where Covid infections begin.
Limitations of masks:
1. Surgical and N95 masks are hard to buy now. However, you can easily purchase cloth ones, or make your own.
2. Hard to wear right. The seal between the mask and your face needs to be very good to protect you from the virus. This is especially true for surgical masks. The seal in N95 masks are usually better than surgical masks, however they are an overkill for the general public, and they are uncomfortable to wear for prolonged periods of time.
3. Surgical masks lose effect as soon as they get wet (with saliva). The doctors I spoke to say that disinfecting used masks, either by heating or drying, do not work. While the virus could potentially be killed by the heat or dryness, a wet mask loses structural integrity and its protection power cannot be salvaged.
4. Doesn’t work 100% even when worn right. The size of the virus (80-140 nanometer in diameter) is smaller than even the pores of the N95 (100-300 nanometer in diameter); luckily the virus does not exist as a stand-alone organism and are either in clusters or in saliva droplets, making them mostly bigger than the pores of the mask. The blockage rate is even lower in surgical masks not because of its material, but because of the poorer seal between mask and face.
5. Hard to handle correctly. You should always assume there is virus on the exposed side of your mask once you have worn it outside of your house. As such, you should avoid touching it with your hands. Care should be taken when you take off your face mask to avoid rubbing the contaminant onto your face. Always wash your hands with soap after you take off your mask, before you touch anything. Additional reading: NYTimes “Why Telling People They Don’t Need Masks Backfired”.
In the meantime, tell your friends!