In the face of increasingly widespread fears of a COVID-19 pandemic, what concrete steps can a person take right now to prevent the infection? Read our practical guide based on official sources.
All data and statistics are based on publicly available data at the time of publication. Some information may be out of date.
To date, public health officials have reported tens of thousands of cases of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
This situation has caused many people around the world to feel anxious about becoming infected, and social media outlets and public forums abound with questions about how to keep COVID-19 at bay.
This Special Feature is a practical guide that describes the best ways to avoid a respiratory infection at home, at work, at school, and while traveling.
The recommendations that we outline are based on those of official sources, including the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC), and the American Red Cross, as well as our correspondence with a WHO spokesperson.
“Based on the information received so far, and on our experience with other coronaviruses, COVID-19 appears to spread mostly through respiratory droplets (when a sick person coughs, for example) and close contact,” a WHO spokesperson told Medical News Today.
In light of that information, the spokesperson said, the WHO recommend preventive actions to minimize exposure to droplets.
During day-to-day activities, people can take the following measures to prevent infection, in accordance with WHO guidelines:
- Clean the hands regularly with an alcohol-based sanitizer, or wash them with soap and water. The CDC also make this recommendation, advising that sanitizer should contain “at least 60% alcohol” and that people should wash their hands for at least 20 seconds.
- Clean surfaces — such as kitchen seats and work desks — regularly with disinfectant.
- Avoid crowded areas when going out, for people over 60 years old and people with any underlying health problems.
- Try to avoid close contact with people who display flu-like symptoms, including coughing and sneezing.
- Get accurate information about COVID-19. Some good sources include the Pan American Health Organization and WHO websites.
The American Red Cross also advise against touching the mouth, nose, or eyes when out and about, before having a chance to wash the hands.
Also, the CDC recommend getting the flu shot to prevent other seasonal respiratory infections.
The CDC recommend that all people wear cloth face masks in public places where it is difficult to maintain a 6-foot (2-meter) distance from others. This will help slow the spread of the virus from asymptomatic people and people who do not know that they have contracted it. People should wear cloth face masks while continuing to practice physical distancing. Instructions for making masks at home are available here. Note: It is critical that surgical masks and N95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.
Work and school environments may seem particularly daunting in the context of an outbreak, but some simple measures can help prevent infection in the office or classroom.
They are largely the same as those outlined above. According to WHO recommendations, the following are the most important preventive steps:
- Regularly clean work surfaces and objects in continual use, such as phones and computer keyboards.
- Regularly wash the hands with soap and water or use sanitizer.
In recent telebriefings, CDC officials advised anyone who is concerned about the potential impact of COVID-19 to get in touch with employers and schools to find out exactly what response measures they have in place.
For people who are planning to travel, all of the same basic hygiene recommendations apply. The WHO advise:
- cleaning hands on a regular basis
- keeping at least 1 meter’s distance from people who are coughing or sneezing
- following COVID-19-specific travel advisories from local authorities
The CDC provide extensive, frequently updated information.
What happens if you start experiencing flu-like symptoms despite your best attempts to stay healthy?
The WHO spokesperson who responded to MNT queries offered the following advice:
- Cough or sneeze into your elbow or use a tissue, then dispose of the tissue immediately and clean your hands.
- If you feel unwell, stay home and call your doctor or a local health professional.
- If you develop shortness of breath, call your doctor and seek care immediately.
- If you are sick: Stay home, eat and sleep separately from others in the house, and use different utensils and cutlery.
The WHO spokesperson also gave us some travel-related advice for people who have flu-like symptoms and are either contemplating travel or have just returned from a trip.
They explained that:
- Anyone with a fever or cough should avoid traveling.
- Anyone who develops symptoms on a flight should inform the crew immediately and, once home, contact a health professional and tell them about the locations visited.
What if you develop COVID-19, or a healthcare professional suspects that you have it, and you need to stay home for a prolonged period? How should you prepare? Some public health experts have
“If you or a friend or family member takes any prescription medication, make sure you have a good supply, e.g., at least 4 weeks’ worth,” says Prof. Peter Openshaw, from Imperial College London, in the United Kingdom.
As for food and other necessities, “Don’t panic buy,” he advises, “but do buy a few extra provisions when you normally go shopping. Don’t forget about pets.”
Here are some other official resources that can help you stay in good health:
- an online course on “nonpharmaceutical countermeasures in relation to COVID-19” from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control
- a CDC guide on “when and how to wash your hands”
- CDC guidelines on what to do if you have COVID-19
- the WHO Information Network for Epidemics
- the Red Cross COVID-19 info hub
“[It is] normal and understandable to feel anxious, especially if you live in a county or community that has been affected,” the WHO spokesperson told MNT. Addressing our readers, they added:
“Find out what you can do in your community and discuss how to stay safe with your workplace, school, or place of worship.”
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