"What this whole COVID-19 response has really shown us is that there's this strong link between these individual actions and the community's health," says Jennifer Horney, PhD, MPH, an epidemiology professor and founding director of the epidemiology program at the University of Delaware. "When we're all being asked to stay at home, that individual action is a little bit more impactful on our day-to-day life and we're able to see more clearly how [our actions] impact the community."
Though social distancing isn't something we need to practice every flu season, says Dr. Horney, many of the recommendations we're hearing about now are the same as those public health officials give year after year. These are the actions we should be following with or without a pandemic.
Healthy hygiene habits we should have been doing all along
1. Wear a face mask when you're sick
"The recommendations may shift to having people who are sick wear masks," says Dr. Horney. "We started to see that particularly since H1N1—when you go to your doctor's office, they'll typically have a supply of masks and ask people who are symptomatic to wear them. Certainly the mask is most effective for keeping people who are symptomatic from spreading to people who are not yet sick. And so I think we'll continue to see greater uptake in that as a precaution during our regular winter season."
Regardless of guidelines, some people may adopt the practice during cold and flu season, says Brian Labus, PhD, MPH, an infectious disease epidemiologist and public health professor at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas.
"Right now we're telling everyone to wear the masks as part of reopening plans and as part of our way to mitigate disease as we come in contact with people more frequently," says Dr. Labus. "I don't know that there's the same need during flu season because we have disease, but not as widespread of disease. But it will be an interesting conversation to have as we move forward."
2. Thoroughly and frequently wash your hands
"Every flu season we put out messages about handwashing and every time there's an outbreak we put out messages about handwashing," says Dr. Labus. "Something like this happens, and people act like it's the first time they've heard that they need to wash their hands, which is kind of concerning."
Handwashing shouldn't be something you do only before a meal or after a visit to the restroom. "It's one of those basic things we need to do more often," says Dr. Labus. Dr. Horney adds that washing your hands alone can cut your risk of infection by about 20 percent in a regular cold and flu season.
A position paper published in April in the American Journal of Infection Control says that proper handwashing cuts down the need for antibiotics. "We have clean water, we have the ability to wash our hands—those go a long way to reducing and reducing disease," says Dr. Labus. "When we can reduce new infections, and we won't need to treat them with antibiotics." This can in turn reduce the rate and speed of antibiotic resistance. Bacteria naturally mutate over time and develop antibiotic-resistant traits. These traits will build up in the population of bacteria. "The less we need to treat people [with antibiotics], the less pressure there is for those bacteria to develop those resistant traits, and the longer we'll be able to use those antibiotics that we have," he says.
3. Stay home when you're sick
COVID-19 is changing the way we think of sick days. May 1 saw record walkouts by workers at Amazon, Whole Foods, Instacart, Walmart, FedEx, Target, and Shipt, all fighting for greater protections from their employers, including accessible paid sick leave. And while a record number of Americans are filing for unemployment, many others are realizing how feasible it is for them to do their jobs from home. Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey announced that his workers may work from home "forever." Companies like JPMorgan, Capital One, and Zillow announced that they’re extending their work-from-home policies.
Dr. Horney says she hopes this experience will continue to shift workplace culture so employees have the ability to stay home when they're sick.
"You've got a couple of groups of people who tend to [stay home when sick] and probably most important are the people who don't have any sick leave and so if they're not at work, then they're foregoing pay," she says. "But then they are also the people who just prioritize work and think that you should sort of power through even if you're sick. And that's really not doing any of us any favors."
4. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing
"It's definitely one of those things that we should be more aware of, that we've been trained on forever—but clearly we're not doing a good job on that," says Dr. Horney. The CDC says covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing may help prevent those around you from getting sick. It recommends covering your mouth and nose with a tissue when you cough or sneeze and then throwing that used tissues in the trash. If you don’t have a tissue, cough or sneeze into your elbow, not your hands. Immediately wash your hands after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
"One of the things that I've seen in the media is a conversation about whether handshakes are now gone forever from our culture," says Dr. Horney. "I doubt that they are, but that's one of the things I think that makes [covering your mouth and nose] really important. You see the immediate link to like the fact that we touch other people with our hands as the greeting, and so we really wouldn't want to be coughing and sneezing on them."
5. Avoid touching your face
Germs are often spread when you touch something that is contaminated with germs and then touch your eyes, nose, or mouth, says the CDC. A 2015 study examined 26 medical students found that they touched their faces, on average, 23 times per hour. Of all face touches, 44 percent involved contact with the eyes, nose, and-or mouth. "And that's in a medical setting where you would think that you would be aware that infection control was an issue," says Dr. Horney. And even if you're wearing gloves, she says you still shouldn't touch your face.
Touching your face is also an issue if you're prone to acne. "One of the worst beauty habits you can have his touching your face during the day,” says Joshua Zeichner, MD, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “On a regular basis we are touching everything from doorknobs to our cell phones. Dirt, oil, and bacteria build up on our fingertips, which translates to skin problems if you’re touching your face."
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