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'It's all about assessing risk': How to protect yourself and family at home from the coronavirus

We look at the latest advice and speak to a virologist.

Image: Shutterstock

HOW DO YOU keep yourself safe from the spread of coronavirus and Covid-19? That’s what is on a lot of people’s minds this past week, especially now that many companies are encouraging people to socially distance and work from home if applicable.

Regardless of if you’re working or not, you might still be meeting people, spending time with family members, or going to the local shop.

Do these all pose risks? How much contact should you have with your family? What about going out for a walk?

Here’s what we know about keeping yourself safe.

The basics first: How coronavirus Covid-19 is spread

It’s important to know, first of all, how the virus is spread.

It’s spread in sneeze or cough droplets. As the HSE explains, to infect you “it has to get from an infected person’s nose or mouth into your eyes, nose or mouth.

This can be:

  • Direct
  • Indirect

So, via:

  • Hands
  • Objects
  • Surfaces

This is why anyone who has symptoms is asked to self-isolate for 14 days, and why everyone should limit unnecessary social contact as much as possible. If you are in an at-risk group, you’re to avoid close contact with people outside the home.

Advice from a virologist 

Kim Roberts is assistant professor of virology at Trinity College Dublin. We asked her how people can make sure that their risk of contracting Covid-19 is kept low while at home or in work.

She said of the situation that “this is all about risk, and it’s about how everyone needs to assess risk. Nothing is risk-free and we need to accept that we need to think through the risk in a careful way, while being realistic and not over-thinking things.

“The aim of all of this social distancing is to slow down transmission – not stop transmission totally.”

She said that social distancing can be “incredibly powerful” and can vastly cut down on transmission rates.

“On average an infected person can infect 2.5 people. If we can change that to infect 1 and a quarter people, the difference in a month of the number of people that one person will have contributed to infecting will change from 244 people down to contributing to the infection of four people in a month.”

“If we can reduce transmission by 50% those are the numbers we are talking about. Some are going to infect more than 2.5 people, but it’s a way of visualising the impact that the social distancing measures can have if we take it seriously.”

What about eating out or going shopping?

Roberts pointed out that the aim is not to prevent all transmission – it’s to cut down on transmission. Each activity we do is going to have a different degree of risk, she explained.

“Someone going out for dinner at a restaurant with somebody is at greater risk of picking up the virus than going to a supermarket, buying shopping – assuming it is not rammed full of people – and then coming home, washing their hands, putting the shopping way and washing their hands again.”

Going out to a restaurant or café, for example, involves being around more people for a longer length of time.

But it’s not just about that, explained Roberts. “Depending on how social distancing is working in that restaurant, it is not just the person you are having dinner with, but also the waiters you are interacting with, other people having dinner as well, depending on how closely spaced people are.”

“Similarly, going to an indoor event, so a small gig or cinema, there’s different risk there than going to the park,” she added.

“Part of that risk difference is the virus survives longer indoors.”

So how long does the virus survive?

Roberts said that the data looking at how long the virus survives currently indicates that: “Indoors it is looking like it can survive at a level that can lead to infection on plastic or stainless steel for probably a day maybe a bit longer. Something on a porous substance like cardboard is more likely to survive for a few hours.” This because it’s faster for the respiratory droplets to dry up on cardboard.

Roberts said that outside, the coronavirus doesn’t survive as well, “for a whole host of environmental reasons: the air, the temperature changes, the humidity, all of those things can affect how the virus survives”. These can mean the droplets shrink faster. 

This also means that one way to improve reducing transmission inside the house is to open windows and doors, and keep the house well ventilated. Outside, there is a lot of air movement. “If loads of air is moving, those water droplets [that contain the virus] are being dispersed rather than concentrated.”

What about gloves, should we use them?

“Gloves offer a false sense of security,” said Roberts. “If you are wearing them you are going to have to change them on a regular basis to keep them clean.”

Instead, she recommends handwashing and not touching your face. “As soon as you step out of the house, work really hard at not touching your face, as soon as you arrive at the destination, whether it’s a cafe or home, wash your hands straight away.”

Roberts said that if you do want to meet up with one or two friends, meeting outside in a park is a good option – while making sure hands are washed before and after, and you don’t touch your face.

Social distancing guidelines can also come into play here.

What about getting a takeaway from a restaurant or café?

Is there a risk of transmission with this?

“It’s really difficult to assess risk for something like that,” said Roberts. “In part it will depend on whether the cafe/restaurant has a policy where they encourage members of staff to stay at home if they are displaying symptoms. If they are not exhibiting symptoms, the chance is much lower than if they are expecting people to come in no matter what.”

“Risk is influenced by length of time so if you’re just going somewhere and getting takeaway coffee, the transmission risk I would have thought would be low, lower than sitting inside the cafe with 10-15 other people,” added Roberts.

She said that when it comes to being outside, “going outside, getting fresh air, having a walk is really important. We all have to mind our mental health as well as minding others and trying to reduce transmission.”

Inside the home

If you are social distancing, you are going to be spending a lot more time in the house.

What are the risks inherent in this?

“If everyone in the house is well and no one has symptoms, then carrying on as normal is the best practice – with a few extra bits like regular washing of hands, and washing hand towels on a daily basis. Also with high-touch surfaces, giving them a more regular clean. 
Washing hands before preparing food, and before and after eating.”

Roberts said that she would also recommend not sharing food: “I wouldn’t suggest sharing platters of food, and not sharing cups and things along those lines. So we can do small things like that.”

What about physical contact with your family?

“Hug and kiss your kids and your partner because we need that reassurance, we need that connection. We need to mind our mental health as much as our physical health,” she said.

Of course, that still has caveats.

“If someone is ill, or showing symptoms, put in a few extra social distancing measures,” advised Roberts. If the person has to self-isolate, they should follow the HSE guidelines.

“The reason for that is of course in your house you have a greater transmission risk because you are all spending this time together inside. The chance of passing the virus on to someone in your household is greater than passing it on to someone in the supermarket.”

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Does it matter what you use to wash your hands or household?

“Wash your hands with any soap – and soap is better than any hand sanitiser,” said Roberts.

“In terms of cleaning products, use whatever you would normally use to clean the kitchen.”

Roberts also noted that if you do get sick, it doesn’t mean you have done something ‘wrong’. The aim of the current measures is not to eliminate the chance of anyone getting ill.

“It’s worth bearing in mind that one of the fears, one of the worries is people who become sick may feel like they’ve failed or let people down. But if we try our best to limit transmission we are doing our best.”

“It’s about acting responsibly, taking social responsibility seriously, but there are limits and as long as we are doing our best that’s all we can ask.”

She added:

“It’s all about slowing down transmission. How and when these social distancing measures start being eased I don’t know. They are going to be reassessing the impact so people need to realise it is not going to be life back as normal on the 29th. It’s likely measures could be extended and we’ve got to make sure that we can live as normally as possible under these social distancing recommendations.

This is not going to finish in a couple of weeks’ time. This is going to be going on for weeks so we have to manage it in a sensible way.

Reduce your risk

These tips are all from the HSE:

  • Wash your hands properly and often
  • Cough or sneeze? Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue or your sleeve
  • Put those used tissues in the bin, then wash your hands
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces
  • Avoid close contact with people – keep a distance of 2metres between you
  • Avoid crowded places, especially indoors (gatherings of over 100 indoors and 500 outdoors are currently banned)
  • Stay at home if you are sick – this helps stop the spread.
  • Also, pay heed to the travel advice from the Department of Foreign Affairs

You’re advised to wash your hands after coughing and sneezing, before and after eating and preparing food; if you were in contact with someone who has a fever or respiratory symptoms; before and after being on public transport/in a crowd; arriving and leaving buildings (including your own home); if you have handled animals or their waste; before having a cigarette or vaping.

Of course, you’re always to wash your hands if they are dirty or if you have used the toilet.

What not to do

  • Don’t touch your eyes, nose or mouth – if your hands are not clean
  • Don’t share objects that touch your mouth (eg cups, bottles, cutlery)
  • Don’t shake hands
  • The HSE recommends not to use gloves in place of washing your hands. This is because “the virus gets on them in the same way it gets on your hands”. Plus, when you take them off, your hands can get contaminated.

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