There are the exam gloves, the surgical masks, the dubious supplements and the deceptive disinfectants. If unchecked Internet information is any guide, there’s an inexhaustible list of products “you should buy” to prepare for the spread of coronavirus – which, according to U.S. health officials, now appears inevitable.
But here’s the thing: Covid-19 may be novel, but you really don’t need to buy anything new or special to brace for it. In fact, The Washington Post spoke to epidemiology experts, and they said the most important aspect of preparedness costs nothing at all: calm.
As of Tuesday evening, there were 57 people with the virus in the United States, all but 14 of them evacuees from the Diamond Princess cruise ship. But CDC officials said they expect to see the number of cases increase as the disease spreads, while also stressing that the immediate risk remains low.
So here’s what doctors, researchers, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention say you can do now – and in the event of a future outbreak – to prepare and protect yourself.
Timothy Brewer is a professor of epidemiology and medicine at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and David Geffen School of Medicine, yet his central piece of advice is not exactly medical.
“Don’t panic,” he said. “There’s no value in panicking or telling people to be afraid. Don’t let fear and emotion drive the response to this virus. That can be extremely difficult because it is new, and we’re still learning about it, but don’t allow fear of what we don’t know about the virus to overwhelm what we do know.”
Brewer said it’s important to remember that covid-19 is a respiratory disease, as is influenza, and while there’s not a vaccine for it, there are tried-and-true ways to deal with this type of illness – which we will cover here.
“The most important thing right now is to remain calm,” said Saskia V. Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist for a Phoenix-based hospital system. “Remember: We don’t have that many cases in the U.S., and prevention strategies for this coronavirus are not new. We’ve been doing them for years.”
A few minutes into a phone call with this reporter, Brewer paused, coughed and then explained himself: “I’m currently recovering from a non-covid respiratory virus,” he said.
But the precautions he took when fighting his influenza-like illness are no different from what people should be doing every day to stave off coronavirus and other respiratory diseases, Brewer said.
You’ve seen the guidance before: Wash your hands regularly, cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze, and when you’re sick, stay home from work or school and drink lots of fluids.
The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before eating and after blowing your nose or sneezing. It also advises to avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth and to frequently clean objects and surfaces you touch often.
“These are all things you can do to prevent the spread of pretty much any respiratory virus,” Brewer said.
And for the record, he added, he stayed home sick last week.
“I practiced what I preached,” Brewer said.
Keep the shopping cart light
You probably don’t need to buy anything new, but if you’re already on your way to CVS, Brewer has some advice.
“Don’t go crazy,” he said. “You don’t need to go out and stock up on lots of things.”
And those surgical masks? If you’re not sick, you don’t need to wear them – and you certainly don’t need to buy every box your local pharmacy has in stock.
“The main point of the mask is to keep someone who is infected with the virus from spreading it to others,” Brewer said.
CDC agrees, writing on its website succinctly: “CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases.”
Common surgical masks block the droplets coming out of a sick person from getting into the air, but they are not tight enough to prevent what’s already in the air from getting in.
There are specialized masks – known as N95 masks because they filter out 95% of airborne particles – that are more effective, and some online retailers are sold out of them. But there’s a problem: The masks are difficult to use without training. They must be fitted and tested to work properly.
“If you just buy them at CVS, you’re not going to do all that,” Brewer said. “You’re not going to get it fit-tested, and you’re not going to be wearing it properly, so all you’ve done is spend a lot of money on a very fancy face mask.”
The same goes for exam gloves, Brewer said, which can get contaminated just like our hands. There’s no need for them if you’re washing your hands properly and often, he said.
If you’re itching to buy something, you can stick to the typical respiratory virus medicine: decongestants, anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen for fevers.
‘Practice makes permanent’
Popescu has had a bag packed since she was in graduate school – if she didn’t have one, she said, she would feel like a bad public health emergency advocate. That’s because, she explained, one of the best things you can do to prepare for any emergency, including a coronavirus outbreak, is put together an emergency kit.
In hers, she has a first-aid kit, flashlights, a space blanket, an external battery for her cellphone, a change of clothes and extra food for her dog. The CDC has a useful checklist for families.
It’s also important to have plans in place in case the outbreak disrupts your daily routines, Popescu said. You should be asking yourself: What if schools close for a week or two? What if there are issues with public transportation? What if I have to work from home or stay at work late?
You should have a plan for child care, for getting to work and for feeding pets, she said.
“A lot of preparedness is planning ahead of time,” Popescu said. “Practice makes permanent. If I have a plan, that means I don’t have to panic.”
And it’s good advice in general, she added, not just in the age of coronavirus.
“This is a good reminder to go through your resources and your plans so that, should it get more serious, you are not taken off guard,” she said. “People think they need to go out and buy stuff, but so much of it is just having a plan.”
Be mindful of where you are
Health officials have stressed to keep your distance from people who are sick, especially when it comes to respiratory viruses.
And because there is no medical solution for coronavirus, preventative steps and awareness are really the best tools at your disposal, said Stanley Perlman, an infectious disease expert at the University of Iowa.
It is worth considering limiting exposure to large groups, especially during flu season. “Any congregation of people is a setup for spreading an infectious agent,” he said.
But with many eyes glued to smartphones and ears muffled by headphones in confined spaces, like mass transit, it’s important to look around and see what’s around you, see where everyone’s hands are going and make a mental note to wash up later.
“We remember hand-washing at home, but not when we get off a subway or leave the grocery store,” Popescu said. There are other measures to take, like trying to avoid the middle of a packed train car, she said. And if someone is coughing nearby, do your best to turn away.
But awareness cuts both ways. While the U.S. will likely see a rise in coronavirus, she said, it is important not to panic. “Just because someone has the sniffles, or has a cough, it doesn’t mean they have the coronavirus,” she said. “There are a lot of respiratory viruses.”
Watch what you read
Coronavirus is spreading rapidly – and so is misinformation about it. Popescu and other experts call this an “infodemic,” and it can be as harmful as any disease.
Since the earliest cases were reported, hoaxes, lies and junk science about coronavirus have swirled online, mostly through social media.
“People are more click-susceptible during these events because there’s more info and people aren’t sure who to trust,” University of Washington researcher Jevin West told The Post this month.
You should ensure you’re staying informed through trustworthy sources, like the CDC, the World Health Organization and local health departments, Popescu said. Not the anonymous user doling out advice in Twitter mentions.
“It can be really easy to go online, buy supplies and freak out and then just stay on Facebook,” she said. “But stay up to date.”
As coronavirus has spread, so too has anti-Asian prejudice.
The World Health Organization has urged government agencies to do what they can to prevent discrimination against specific populations, since stigmatization can fuel the spread of the outbreak by driving marginalized individuals to hide infection and avoid seeking treatment.
“Remember to not let fear override your common humanity about how you treat other people,” Brewer said. “Just remember we’re all in this together. This is a virus. It does not think; it is not planning. We shouldn’t be blaming our neighbors or our fellow colleagues or people in the community because a virus happens to exist and is spreading.”
The Washington Post’s Kim Bellware contributed to this report.