Some simple personal habits for practical safety in a world of COVID-19

A man wearing a protective mask makes a purchase from a cashier wearing a protective mask. Photo by Cindy Ord/Getty Images.

Ohio is reopening more or less fully over the coming weeks, but the coronavirus pandemic is far from gone, leaving Ohioans to navigate their own personal safety in a state reopened with a far higher incidence of COVID-19 than it had when it shut down in March. What can we all do personally to remain as safe as possible until a cure or vaccination is found?

After running some regular errands around Columbus, and after having spent 10 weeks studying the known (and much still unknown) science of the new coronavirus and its transmission, I’ve developed some simple habits for practical safety in a world of COVID-19.

Hand usage, hand washing and sanitizing

Hand sanitizer and hand-washing will be key elements to entering, navigating, and exiting all public spaces for the foreseeable future. I’ve realized that as soon as I leave the safety of my own home, I have to remain acutely aware of everything my hands touch (and at all costs, avoiding touching them to my face). I wanted to develop a way to still handle my wallet, keys and phone and largely keep them uncontaminated; therefore, I’ve rearranged my pockets.

Typically, I’m not forced to touch anything public until after I’ve left my car, so first, I keep a bottle of hand sanitizer in my car. I keep all personal effects (wallet, keys, phone) in my right-hand pocket. This is because, as soon as I leave my car, I may only touch my personal effects with my right hand, and nothing else. This ensures that my right hand and personal effects remain free from any potential germs gathered by touching public objects, though I still very much avoid touching my face with it.

I use my left hand to open doors, press elevator buttons, grab products off shelves, punch numbers at the ATM or the credit card machine, and sign my signature on said credit card machines. I consider my left hand radioactive until I can either wash my hands, use hand sanitizer, or get back to my car, which I open with my right hand, grab the sanitizer and open, squirt into my left hand, and sanitize before getting back into my car and touching anything else or operating the vehicle.

Credit card machines are interesting. With one hand, my right, I have to grab my wallet from my pocket, pick out my credit card, insert it into the machine, pull it out, put it back into my wallet, and put my wallet away, while dealing with the key pad and electronic pen with my left hand. This keeps my right hand, wallet, and card from contamination, while continuing to only touch public surfaces with my left.

If I were managing a bag, I’d use one with easy accessibility to all possible necessities with one hand and the use of a counter or other surface to put it on. Keeping easily accessible hand sanitizer in that bag seems a smart idea.

When I get home, I sanitize my hands again, wipe down and disinfect all products that have been in public and may have been touched by others, put them away, and wash and sanitize my hands again.

The importance of face coverings

Face coverings are a low-cost, widely available tool that, with widespread use, could be our most effective weapon against COVID-19. Unfortunately, many people still refuse to wear them in public. This is problematic because they’re only effective as a weapon if a majority of us are wearing them. This is because face coverings don’t really much protect the person wearing one; they protect others from the person wearing one.

COVID-19 seems to be spread primarily by droplets emitted from the mouth during speech, coughing, sneezing, yelling, singing. The Canadian health system launched a droplet safety COVID-19 protection program for health care workers that has seen notable success. We can see directly in laser light scattering video that a piece of cloth blocks droplets and the virus those droplets contain.

Four recent studies show people without symptoms who don’t know they are sick are responsible for around half of the transmission of the virus. So, if a presymptomatic or asymptomatic person is wearing a face covering, even if they don’t know or feel like they are sick, the covering will largely prevent them from spreading the virus.

Numerous studies suggest if 80% of people wear a mask in public, then COVID-19 transmission could be halted. Until a vaccine or a cure for COVID-19 is discovered, cloth face coverings might be the most important tool we currently have to fight the pandemic. Everybody who can, should wear face coverings in public.

But some people refuse to wear face coverings

What do we do when those around us refuse to wear face coverings? Stay away from them. Specifically, I stay at least six feet away from them. A face covering is not a protection for the wearer unless it’s a medical-grade, authentic, and properly worn N95 mask. Droplets just from talking can travel up to a meter and a half, studies have shown. So with extra buffer room, I stay six feet away from anybody not wearing a covering, especially indoors.

If that person is singing, or coughing, or sneezing, or yelling, I know I’ll need even more distance as those things can make the droplets travel significantly further. If I’m outdoors, the good ventilation will also provide some protection. If I’m indoors, distance becomes more and more important. Even with face coverings, it’s good to maintain a healthy distance. Without them, it’s critical.

Another concern with indoor spaces is the ability of an air conditioning system blowing air throughout a room to more easily spread droplets. I try to become aware of air ducts, fans, air flow, and ventilation in any given room I’m in. Businesses I might patronize should be following all possible safety measures, and if they’re not, I won’t be a patron.

How do I hang with my friends and family?

Luckily, it’s getting warmer, because they easiest answer as far as how to see our much-missed family and friends is to do so outside.

It’s best to keep groups small, away from other groups, with folks in the group still distanced away, and without sharing of food or drinks. It’s also best to keep face coverings and hand sanitizer nearby. I prefer a bandanna covering because it can be worn around the neck and easily pulled up if I get into closer proximity to anybody else. The donning of glasses and sunglasses likely helps prevent possible transmission via droplets getting to the eyes.

Again, I try to be acutely aware of my hands and what I touch with them at all times. If I touch something others have, I do not touch my face until I can wash or sanitize my hands.

So these are some of the rules I’m following when I have to go out into public more. I hope they are useful to others. For some more reading on what we can personally do to minimize risk, check out this article from The Conversation by Ryan Malosh, an assistant research scientist from the University of Michigan: “How do you stay safe now that states are reopening? An expert explains how to assess risk when reconnecting with friends and family.”