The United States, the United Kingdom, and several countries in Europe have gradually been easing pandemic restrictions. However, we should still adhere to crucial hygiene and safety measures in order to stay healthy and safeguard the health of those around us. Health experts explain why.

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As countries around the world race to ensure that their populations are fully vaccinated against COVID-19, some have already started to ease certain restrictions related to the pandemic.

In the United States, for instance, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have announced that fully vaccinated individuals may now go to most places without having to wear a face covering.

In the United Kingdom, more and more previously shut venues, such as restaurants and cinemas, are reopening. Also, official guidelines indicate that people may now hug if they feel comfortable doing so and exercise caution.

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Various European countries have also gradually been lifting restrictions, as have some parts of Australia. However, health experts urge individuals not to leave behind their commitment to good hygiene practices going forward.

To find out why and discover which practices we should stick to in order to continue ensuring our own safety and that of other people, Medical News Today spoke with Dr. Scott Kaiser, the director of geriatric cognitive health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, and Dr. Eva Beaulieu, an internal medicine hospitalist.

Conflict of interests disclaimer: Dr. Beaulieu is also a spokesperson for disinfectant product manufacturer Clorox.

As more and more people around the world get vaccinated against COVID-19, they will once again start to take part in activities that they used to enjoy before their countries’ officials introduced pandemic restrictions.

Many of us have been looking forward to meeting up with friends and family in person, going to restaurants, attending events, and traveling again. However, even as restrictions may ease in some regions or for those who have had their COVID-19 vaccines, adhering to strict hygiene practices remains important.

Vaccination rollouts are helping, but “we are still in a pandemic,” Dr. Kaiser emphasized. “The SARS-CoV-2 virus, including a steady stream of new variants, continues to circulate globally causing […] new COVID-19 cases.”

“Some parts of the world are still suffering the deadly consequences of massive outbreaks, and we should [be aware] of the ways we as individuals can ‘stop the spread’ of this virus and other viruses,” he told us.

Although vaccines are effective in preventing COVID-19 and possibly reducing the risk of spreading SARS-CoV-2, it remains unclear how long they are effective for and just how much they reduce the risk of further transmission.

These are some of the reasons that maintaining caution as we navigate a world with fewer restrictions will be helpful in ensuring the further easing of those regulations.

“[A] large portion of the population is still not fully vaccinated, and with this, we do continue to see new COVID-19 cases — and deaths — each day,” said Dr. Kaiser.

“And even as more and more people do get vaccinated, a small percentage of people cannot get the vaccine due to ‘contraindications,’ and certain high risk immunocompromised people may not receive the full protection of vaccines.”

“That said, while the currently available vaccines are amazingly effective overall, even in healthy populations, there [is] still a small percentage of cases of ‘breakthrough infections’ in which fully vaccinated people may still develop COVID-19. For all of these reasons, it’s important for all of us to continue healthy hygiene practices to play our part in stopping the spread.”

– Dr. Scott Kaiser

Beyond the threat of infection with SARS-CoV-2, people must remember that other pathogens are still at large, both Dr. Kaiser and Dr. Beaulieu told us.

Since the start of the pandemic, headlines worldwide have understandably focused on the impact of the new coronavirus. In this context, it can be easy to forget that, even before the COVID-19 pandemic, local outbreaks of infectious diseases were still a public health issue to be reckoned with.

“It’s important to maintain strict hygiene practices even as the pandemic restrictions are easing because there are plenty of other viruses, and other germs, that people may spread that can cause terrible harm. Seasonal influenza, [or] the flu, for example, still kills tens of thousands of Americans each year,” Dr. Kaiser pointed out.

“A lot of the strict hygiene practices that have been widely adopted during the pandemic stem from principles that healthcare professionals have always used to help mitigate the spread of germs,” Dr. Beaulieu said.

“The pandemic has called our attention to some of the hygiene outages that existed before and has demonstrated how addressing some of those outages can help improve overall public health long into the future,” she added.

“Hygiene practices such as hand-washing and proper cleaning and regular disinfecting are [important parts] of a holistic strategy to help reduce the spread of germs such as flu, norovirus, and MRSA [an antibiotic resistant bacterial infection], [which] can be transmitted via surfaces we all share and can lead to outbreaks that can shutter schools and offices and overburden our healthcare system, even after the pandemic ends.”

– Dr. Eva Beaulieu

Dr. Beaulieu also noted that, thanks to adherence to a combination of strict public health measures, the spread of various infectious diseases fell significantly throughout 2020. In fact, according to the CDC, the cumulative hospitalization rate for flu was 0.8 cases per 100,000 people during the 2020–2021 flu season.

For reference, this is about “one-tenth the rate as during the 2011–12 season,” according to CDC information.

So, what should we continue to do going forward, even as restrictions ease, to keep ourselves and others safe and healthy?

1. Keep the hands clean

The number one rule, according to Dr. Kaiser, is to maintain good hand hygiene by washing the hands correctly and frequently.

“Our hands are still one of the primary ways that we spread illness,” Dr. Kaiser explained. “It’s estimated that poor hand hygiene is responsible for spreading over 80% of communicable diseases. And proper hand hygiene will remain one of the most accessible, effective, and critical tools to stop the spread of illness and prevent loss of life.”

As for how to wash the hands correctly and effectively, he advised that people should do this using soap and water for 20 seconds or longer each time. People should wash their hands “especially after [they] have been in a public place, or after coughing, sneezing, or blowing [their] nose,” he added.

Some other instances in which hand-washing is important, he explained, include:

  • before eating or preparing food
  • before touching the face
  • after using the restroom
  • after handling a mask
  • after changing a diaper
  • after caring for someone who is unwell
  • after touching animals

In situations where hand-washing is not an option, people should aim to clean their hands using a sanitizer containing at least 60% alcohol content, Dr. Kaiser added.

2. Cover the mouth and nose when sneezing or coughing

If a person coughs or sneezes, they should always make sure that they are covering their nose and mouth when they do so, Dr. Kaiser emphasized.

“Cover up by coughing or sneezing into the crook of your elbow or using a tissue. Do not spit, discard the tissue, and now wash those hands as [advised] above [as soon as possible],” he urged.

“If you happen to cough or sneeze while wearing a mask, that’s OK … just put on a new, clean mask and wash those hands [as soon as possible],” he said.

3. Disinfect objects and surfaces

In addition to this, Dr. Beaulieu noted that disinfecting surfaces and objects is of utmost importance when it comes to preventing the spread of pathogens.

“It’s important to remain vigilant in routine cleaning and disinfecting of frequently touched surfaces and high traffic areas to help us be proactive in the fight against pathogens that are easily transmissible, like the flu, norovirus, and the common cold,” Dr. Beaulieu explained.

“In the home,” she noted, “these are surfaces such as doorknobs, window latches, light switches, tabletops, countertops, bathroom sink[s], kitchen sink[s], bathroom toilet[s], and faucet handles. In public spaces, these are surfaces such as desks, doorknobs, keyboards, phones, countertops, and restroom sinks and toilets.”

She also explained that the process of cleaning is but one part of making sure that surfaces are adequately sanitized.

“Cleaning removes dust, debris, and dirt from a surface by scrubbing, washing, and rinsing. It is essential for overall hygiene and is a helpful first step to maximize the efficacy of disinfectants and sanitizers. It’s important to remember [that] cleaning products alone are not designed to kill germs,” Dr. Beaulieu said.

To make sure that objects and surfaces are completely pathogen-free, it is crucial to go one step further and fully disinfect them.

“Disinfecting destroys or inactivates both the bacteria and viruses identified on the product’s label (like influenza and rhinovirus) on hard, nonporous surfaces,” explained Dr. Beaulieu.

Such products, she added, “kill a wide range of microorganisms and are designed for high level decontamination of areas that are most likely to become contaminated and spread diseases to others.”

Which surfaces and areas are the most important to thoroughly disinfect? According to Dr. Beaulieu, the bathroom and kitchen are the two places that require the most attention.

“I recommend targeting bathroom and kitchen surfaces for disinfectant use, since germs can land on surrounding surfaces or spread from raw food sources,” she told us.

“In public spaces like schools, offices, restaurants, healthcare facilities — anywhere that a lot of people are sharing spaces — routine disinfecting of high touch surfaces is a key part of a holistic strategy to help prevent the spread of germs,” she added.

4. Do not go to work or school when unwell

Finally, Dr. Kaiser noted that one aspect of our lives that we must act on differently going forward is the temptation to engage in presenteeism. This is the practice of attending work or school even when one is feeling unwell.

People might engage in presenteeism because they fear losing their job, fear missing out on work opportunities, do not have access to paid sick leave, or fear the impact that absences might have on their school performance.

However, presenting to work or school while unwell with an infectious disease places others at risk of contracting the virus that caused it.

It is for this reason that, “[e]ven as pandemic restrictions ease, people should still maintain some vigilance and monitor their health — being alert for symptoms and taking [their] temperature if [they] are feeling ill,” Dr. Kaiser told us.

“Before the pandemic, far too many people would ignore such signs and symptoms and go into work, school, or other public settings even when they were not feeling well, unnecessarily spreading illness.”

“We need a real change in practices and culture around this to better protect individual and public health,” he emphasized.

“If you are sick, stay home, and let’s create systems and norms that make this acceptable — it’s the right thing to do! And, at the same time, even as mandates go away, we [don’t] need to abandon our masks forever. If you or someone around you has not been feeling well, wearing masks, keeping a distance, and avoiding certain situations remain highly effective ways to reduce the spread of illness,” Dr. Kaiser advised.

“In some cultures, it is totally ‘normal,’ and perhaps even expected, to wear masks in public when someone has any cold or allergy symptoms — why not make that our culture too?” he added.

Overall, what is most important is not to think of the COVID-19 pandemic as a “one-off” public health crisis. This is not the first time the world has faced a pandemic, and it will likely not be the last. So, for everyone’s continued safety, we should all try to remain well-informed and responsible.

According to Dr. Kaiser, “while the COVID-19 pandemic has been described as a ‘once-in-a-hundred-years event,’ some experts anticipate that this may not be accurate for long.”

“Research predicts that we will see an increase in the severity and frequency of pandemics in the face of several underlying global trends — climate change, for example — that facilitate the transmission of virus[es] across species (i.e., new viruses crossing over from animals to people) and increase the likelihood of global spread.”

“Good hygiene — especially good hand-washing practices — is one of the most accessible, effective, and critical tools to stop the spread and prevent loss of life.”

– Dr. Scott Kaiser

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