Preparing for a pandemic: What you need to know
There’s currently a lot of information being spread around about airborne epidemics and pandemics. But what’s true and what’s false, and what can you do to stay safe?
DISCLAIMER: This is general information and is NOT intended to replace advice given by a medical professional. Contact your health provider immediately if you develop symptoms.
How can I prevent myself from being infected during a pandemic?
The most effective method is to practice extremely good hygiene. Wash your hands often and use sanitizer when soap and water is not immediately available. Disinfect surfaces that are touched often.
Avoid contact with sick people and avoid visiting areas that have been affected by the disease. Those considered high-risk for contracting the disease or experiencing dangerous symptoms (e.g., if you’re elderly or have preexisting respiratory or heart conditions) should practice extreme caution. Public health officials may advise people of all ages, regardless of their health status, to avoid large social gatherings and public places as much as possible.
Is COVID-19 less dangerous than the common flu?
Because the total amount of deaths due to COVID-19 is less than that of the common flu, some people — even those in positions of power — have erroneously claimed that it is less dangerous. This is patently false.
While the risk of fatality from the disease is low for most of the population, it’s still much higher overall than that of standard influenza. The World Health Organization currently estimates the mortality rate of COVID-19 is 3.4%. This number is likely to fall when more confirmed cases are reported, but even if it drops to 1%, that’s still 10 times more deadly than the common flu.
Will face masks help slow the spread of airborne illnesses?
Maybe a little bit, but not much. Viruses are often spread by people coughing or sneezing, so a face mask may protect your mouth from coming into contact with an infected respiratory droplet. However, most surgical masks still leave your eyes exposed, and aren’t particularly effective after you’ve worn them for more than a half-hour, when they become wet from your breath.
They’re much more effective in containing the spread of airborne illnesses when worn by a person who is sick themselves.
Also, buying up medical masks can cause a shortage that could hinder medical professionals, so the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises against it.
Can pets contract and spread diseases that affect humans?
There are some diseases animals can pass to humans and vice versa, but these are few and far between. The H1N1 swine flu is a bit of a misnomer, as it is spread from human to human and does not travel across species.
Recently, several tigers at the Bronx Zoo tested positive for COVID-19, proving that while it may be rare, certain animals can be affected by the disease. However, it’s likely the disease was passed to the animals by a sick zookeeper, not the other way around. If you get sick, avoid touching your pets and quarantine yourself in a separate room if possible.
Is hand sanitizer effective in fighting viruses?
There’s some misinformation being spread about the effectiveness of hand sanitizer against COVID-19. Some have claimed that since hand sanitizers are antibacterial, this means they can’t kill viruses, since viruses and bacteria are different kinds of organisms and affect the body differently. For example, antibiotics are effective against a bacterial infection but useless against a virus.
Regarding the claim about hand sanitizer being useless against COVID-19, this is false. As long as the hand sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol, it will kill the virus upon contact. The majority of hand sanitizers on the market are alcohol based, and alcohol gel is effective in breaking down the envelope structure of COVID-19.
However, hand sanitizer has not been proven effective against other forms of viruses, such as norovirus. When possible, washing your hands with soap and water is the better option.
Should I stay home during an outbreak?
You should avoid contact with people as much as possible. Even if you don’t have a preexisting heart condition, respiratory condition, or autoimmune disorder, and the virus is unlikely to seriously harm you, you risk contracting the illness and spreading it to people that will not survive getting sick. People that feel sick should absolutely stay home to avoid infecting others — even if their symptoms are very minor.
Unless your community is on complete lockdown, going for a walk, jog, or hike where you won’t come in contact with anyone should be safe.
It’s important to take precautions but to avoid panicking during a viral outbreak. Let’s go through some of the buzzwords you’ve been hearing and define them.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
Currently, there is no vaccine for COVID-19, though dozens of teams are racing to create one. Most experts believe that a viable vaccine is still a relatively long way off — ranging between a “year and a year and a half,” according to Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.
There have been encouraging preliminary tests of experimental vaccines that have shown some success in mice blood, but vaccine expert Dr. Judith O’Donnell warns that, “Until we test them in humans we have absolutely no idea what the immune response will be.”
How does the government react to a pandemic?
It will depend on the nature of the disease, how it spreads, and what response the particular stage of the outbreak warrants. The initial goal in an outbreak is containment — keeping the spread of the virus to a minimum.
Italy and China — where the outbreak of COVID-19 has been especially devastating — responded by “locking down” the country, discouraging people to only leave their homes to work or to perform essential tasks like grocery shopping. All major events with gatherings of 1,000 people or more have been canceled and travel has been restricted. So far, this seems to be working in China, as the spread of the virus has dwindled.
Will it get worse?
In regard to the current COVID-19 pandemic, most experts believe the situation will worsen. Some have even called for response teams to turn our focus from containment to mitigation.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, recently testified before the House Committee on Oversight and Reform. “I can say we will see more cases, and things will get worse than they are right now,” he said. “How much worse we’ll get will depend on our ability to do two things: to contain the influx of people who are infected coming from the outside, and the ability to contain and mitigate within our own country.”
Be prepared, but don’t hoard supplies
We’re all in this together. Remember that even though you can afford to stock up, others may not be able to. Limit yourself to buying enough for a couple of weeks. A pandemic with a low mortality rate is unlikely to affect access to running water or energy in developed countries, so there’s no need to buy up all the water.
Allowing people to get all the supplies they need further limits the risk and spread of a pandemic, since more people are able to practice effective hygiene methods and take the necessary precautions.
Can I use vodka to disinfect my hands?
Hand sanitizer has been flying off the shelves as of late, and most grocery stores have been unable to keep up with demand. This has caused some rumors to spread about alternative methods of disinfecting oneself, namely using spirits in place of Purell. However, most spirits contain less than 60% alcohol, rendering them ineffective in fighting off a virus.
Tito’s Vodka recently responded to rumors that their product was useful as a hand sanitizer on Twitter (Tito’s is only 40% alcohol). In theory, extremely high-proof spirits such as Everclear would kill certain viruses, but there are simpler and more effective solutions available.
Should I make my own sanitizer at home?
Probably not. The widespread shortage of hand sanitizer has caused some people to come up with creative solutions, making their own sanitizer out of isopropyl alcohol and aloe vera or other products. As for how well it works? Well, that seems to depend on the person making it.
Unless you’re a chemist, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warns against DIY hand sanitizer. For example, the homemade solution suggested above would not be effective, because it erroneously calls for 4 parts aloe vera to 1 part alcohol. Also, too much isopropyl alcohol can be harmful to the skin, and burning your hands leaves them more susceptible to contracting an infection. You’re better off just washing your hands with soap and water.
What about homemade disinfectant spray?
If your local grocery store is out of disinfectant spray, there are ways to safely make your own at home. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends using diluted bleach to clean off surfaces for virus prevention. The ratio should be 4 teaspoons of bleach per 1 quart of water. Do NOT mix bleach with any other cleaning agents.
Bleach works well, but it can corrode metal and, after a few days, it begins to degrade and lose its potency. Another effective solution is household hydrogen peroxide; just be sure to let it sit on the surface for a few minutes before you wipe it off.
How often should I wash my hands?
While hand sanitizer works in a pinch, it’s not nearly as effective as washing your hands with soap and water. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization maintain that one of the best ways to fight against the spread of infectious disease is to wash your hands properly and often. What does that mean? We’re glad you asked …
You should always wash your hands: before eating or preparing food, before and after assisting a sick person or treating a wound, after using the restroom, after changing diapers, after touching animals and handling their food and waste, or after touching trash. It’s also a good idea to wash your hands after touching things that lots of people have touched (e.g., door handles, elevator buttons, etc.).
What’s the preferred method for washing your hands?
You should wash your hands by wetting your hands first, then applying soap. Turn off the faucet and scrub your hands by lathering up your palms, the backs of your hands, and your wrists. Then turn the faucet back on and rinse your hands off thoroughly before drying.
The whole process should take at least 20 seconds — about as long as it takes you to sing “Happy Birthday” twice. Or, if that’s not your jam, you can sing the chorus to “Dancing Queen” by ABBA, “Say My Name” by Destiny’s Child, or “Ms. Jackson” by OutKast.
Isolation vs. self-quarantining vs. social distancing
We’ve all heard these terms thrown around a lot by experts recently. But what do these terms mean, and how and when do we practice them? Each refers to a different method of preventing the spread of diseases that should be practiced in specific instances.
In short, “social distancing” refers to practices where you do your best to avoid crowds, and to avoid physical contact like handshakes and hugs. “Self-quarantine” refers to the process of staying at home and avoiding as much contact with the outside world as possible. “Isolation” is the process of separating people who have contracted the disease from the rest of the population. When and how should each of these practices be implemented?
What is social distancing?
Social distancing is recommended for high-risk individuals and/or people who live in a community affected by an outbreak. It refers to general precautions and is NOT for people who have been infected, believe they’ve come in contact with an infected person, or have recently visited affected areas (this requires more serious safety measures — see “self-quarantine” and “isolation” below).
Social distancing involves avoiding crowded events, keeping a healthy distance from others, and limiting physical contact when greeting people.
What does it mean to self-quarantine?
Certain areas in the United States and other countries have been declared “containment zones,” in which residents are encouraged to stay home and to avoid traveling to other areas. Experts recommend that individuals who suspect they may have come in contact with the disease should self-quarantine. In some cases, quarantine can be mandatory. But what does this mean?
First, it doesn’t mean that these people necessarily have been infected — it’s just a way of being cautious to make sure the illness doesn’t spread. With the current COVID-19 outbreak, experts recommend that people that may have been in contact with an infected individual stay home as much as possible for at least 14 days. If you live with others, avoid sharing things as much as possible, and wipe things down after use. If you start to develop flu-like symptoms, call a doctor for instructions, but don’t leave the house.
How should I prepare in case I’m asked to stay inside?
If you want to be extra careful and prepare in case you may have to self-quarantine in the near future, there are some things you can do. It’s not a bad idea to stock up on some essentials, like toiletries, nonperishable foods, and medications.
Unlike other emergencies — like earthquakes or hurricanes — it’s improbable that a pandemic with a low mortality rate will cause power failures, so frozen foods should suffice.
Experts ask that you limit yourself to buying up to a few weeks’ worth of supplies, ensuring others that may not have the means to buy in bulk can get everything they need.
What about isolation?
Isolation is performed under the supervision and treatment of medical professionals. Unlike a quarantine, which is for people who may have come in contact with the infection but are yet to show symptoms or be diagnosed, the isolation process is for people who have been diagnosed with the disease.
Isolation is designed to separate people who have contracted the virus from those who have not been infected, and cannot be performed effectively without medical supervision.
What should I do if I contract the illness?
Call your health provider and explain your situation. Then follow their instructions. Due to shortages of testing kits, if you’re young and healthy, you may just be told to stay home and quarantine yourself.
It’s important to call ahead and not just show up to the emergency room — by doing that, you risk spreading the illness to sick people!
Will closing the borders help?
It depends on the situation: When several countries canceled flights due to the H1N1, it proved ineffective in slowing the spread of the disease in those areas. Closing borders and canceling flights potentially causes other problems as well — it can limit the ability to provide supplies needed to slow the spread.
However, each virus behaves differently and may warrant different responses. For example, COVID-19 can take up to 14 days before showing symptoms, so it may be advantageous to preemptively restrict travel, or at least to quarantine people that have recently visited certain areas.
Will closing schools help?
The issue is more complicated than it seems. Obviously in a viral outbreak where children are at risk, shutting down schools is the logical response. However, in cases where kids can contract and spread the disease but are not at any serious risk, some experts argue that shutting down schools may do more harm than good.
There are two schools of thought in response to a case like COVID-19, which doesn’t appear to seriously harm young children. The obvious solution would be to shut schools down so that children don’t contract the disease and spread it to their relatives. However, this can cause significant strain on hospitals and response efforts if nurses and physicians are forced to stay home to look after their children.
What’s the difference between an epidemic and a pandemic?
Put simply, it’s the scale of the outbreak. An epidemic is an outbreak of a disease that affects many people at the same time, and may spread to several communities usually untouched by the disease.
A pandemic is when an epidemic spreads to an entire country or across the globe.
Neither term says anything about the lethality of the outbreak. For example, the H1N1 influenza, or swine flu, was deemed a pandemic by the World Health Organization, despite only having a death rate of 0.02%.
What can you do to help?
There are a number of ways you can minimize the risks of a potentially deadly pandemic — not just of contracting and spreading the disease. The most obvious ways are to take the basic health precautions like washing your hands often, coughing into your elbow, throwing away used tissues immediately, etc. If you’re an employer, consider extending sick leave and/or allowing your employees to work remotely when possible.
Individuals should practice social distancing to prevent the spread of the virus, avoid bars and restaurants when asked to, and limit trips to the store.
But there are many other things you can do to make life better for others during these trying times.
Reach out to vulnerable people
If you’re young and healthy, you’re probably not as worried about the spread of a pandemic as older people and/or people with compromised immune systems. But these people matter too, and these times are especially frightening to them.
Check in with them and make sure they have all the food, medication, or supplies they might need. If you’re worried about passing sickness to them, you can still reach out with a phone call or other methods to support your family, neighbors, and friends emotionally.
Don’t play the blame game
In trying times, it’s easy to find someone to blame. But it’s important to remember that this isn’t any specific person or group’s fault. Xenophobia and racism can have just as devastating an effect as any disease, and it’s thoughtless and cruel to disparage people that are struggling.
Jenny G. Zhang writes in Eater that “a degree of apprehension and caution is perfectly warranted. But it’s telling that sympathy — or any regard, for that matter — for the outbreak’s vast majority of victims in China seems to be in short supply. As if devaluing other humans’ lives will protect your own.”
Misinformation is dangerous
It’s important to make sure you have the facts and aren’t operating on false information. Mistakenly believing you’re taking effective measures to prevent or treat disease can cause it to spread faster.
Downplaying the seriousness of a pandemic and displaying a cavalier attitude toward the spread of a dangerous illness can have dire consequences. Having bad information leads people to make bad decisions.
Go easy on your delivery driver
It might be tempting to avoid going out at all — and in this modern age, it’s easier than ever. However, you should remember to be considerate to others. Delivery drivers in this gig economy often don’t get paid sick leave, and they may have their own families to support and be overworked during a pandemic.
If you’re using a service like Instacart for your grocery services, remember that it’s not your driver’s fault if a store is out of stock on certain items. Consider being extra generous with your tips!
Try to stay calm and avoid feeling too lonely
Be cautious, but remember that panicking never helps. If you have to stay home, distract yourself with things you like to do, read some books, watch your favorite shows, exercise, and try not to obsess over the latest news.
Also, social distancing doesn’t mean being antisocial; you can still stay in touch with your friends and family through the phone, FaceTime, or Skype.
Experts recommend limiting the amount of media you engage with every day. Despite all the discouraging news, try to take comfort in the fact that it’s temporary, and eventually things will return to normal.