On Tuesday, February 25, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention gave an update on the status of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, in the U.S. Though there have been about 60 cases of the disease in the country so far, and only one from an unidentified source, the federal government warns that Americans should start preparing for a coronavirus outbreak—or, potentially, a pandemic. That may sound alarming, but it’s not a signal to buy surgical masks in bulk or lock yourself indoors. Mental Floss spoke with an expert about what to expect if the new coronavirus spreads in the U.S. and the best ways to keep yourself and your community safe—as well as what “safety” practices to avoid.
1. Don’t panic.
If the word pandemic calls to mind a scene from a post-apocalyptic movie, give yourself a reality check. The World Health Organization defines pandemic as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.” In other words, it describes the range and infection rate of a virus, not how deadly it is. “The word pandemic has been used when discussing how this outbreak may unfold, and while it may be scary, pandemics are not always deadly,” Caitlin Wolfe, a doctoral student at the University of South Florida’s College of Public Health, tells Mental Floss. (Wolfe was a former consultant epidemiologist for WHO, but her statements are her own.)
As of February 23, the CDC reported 78,811 cases of COVID-19 and 2462 associated deaths worldwide. In some cases, patients with the disease show no symptoms at all, and it's still unclear what percentage of infected people are symptomatic. So even when one expert suggests 40 to 70 percent of all people could get the new coronavirus within a year, it says nothing about how many people will die from it or even get experience symptoms.
Instead of fretting over sensationalist headlines, Wolfe recommends reading trustworthy sources. “Stay informed. Seek out information from local and state health departments on what is happening in your area. The relevant health authorities here in the U.S. have been very proactive in sharing information regarding this new virus as it becomes available,” she says. The CDC’s coronavirus webpage is an excellent place to start.
2. Stock up on essentials.
During its recent coronavirus update, the CDC warned that Americans should prepare for disruptions to their daily lives. This not only means potential quarantines that would keep people out of schools or offices, but also food and supply shortages as economies around the world deal with the fallout. The most important item to stock up on is medication. “The FDA commissioner went on the record stating that though it hasn't been seen yet, this outbreak will likely affect the medical supply chain,” Wolfe says. “In the event of medicine shortages, people should try to make sure they have a 30-day supply of whatever medications they need in case there is a delay in refilling their prescriptions.”
Once that’s taken care of, start stockpiling non-perishable foods, toiletries, and other items for your home. Wolfe recommends tissues specifically, with a reminder that they should always be thrown away immediately after use. As is the case with medication, having enough essential supplies to get through a month is ideal.
3. If you’re healthy, leave the mask at home.
Medical masks have already become a symbol of the coronavirus outbreak. Following unprecedented demand in China, there are currently shortages all over the world. But there’s no need to order a package of masks online for four times the regular cost. According to Wolfe, wearing a mask outdoors won’t do much to stop you from catching the coronavirus: “Wearing a mask in public if you are healthy, especially the commonly seen surgical masks, is not useful. These masks fit too loosely around the face to block the inhalation of viral particles.” The only cases when wearing such gear may be worthwhile is if you already feel ill. “Wearing a surgical mask if you are sick is a good idea, as this can help reduce the amount of germs you spread to others,” Wolfe says.
4. Buy alcohol-based cleaners and hand sanitizers.
When buying things to disinfect yourself and your home, make sure alcohol is listed as an ingredient. Alcohol-based cleaning sprays and wipes can kill the coronavirus. It should also be the main ingredient in your hand sanitizer. According to Wolfe, “Hand sanitizer is all right in a pinch, but make sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.” Washing your hands with soap and water, she notes, is the best way to keep your hands clean.
Alcohol’s protective properties don’t apply to a virus that has already entered the body, so don’t use the public health threat as an excuse to binge-drink, and definitely don't ingest cleaners or spray them onto your skin.
5. Spend more time washing your hands.
The simplest way to protect yourself from the coronavirus and viral infections in general is to improve your hand-washing game. A 2018 study by the U.S. Department of Agriculture found that Americans fall short of washing our hands properly 97 percent of the time. The minimum time for hand-washing recommended by the CDC is 20 seconds, or about two full renditions of “Happy Birthday.” You should be washing with warm, soapy water, scrubbing all parts of your hands and wrists, and drying off with a clean towel. Washing up before and after preparing food and after using the bathroom is essential, but in the case of a pandemic, you should be washing your hands as frequently as possible.
6. Stop touching your face.
That hand-washing statistic is even more disturbing coupled with the fact that people may touch their face up to 52 times per day. “Resist the urge to touch your face,” Wolfe says, because “you’re hand-delivering any germs on your hands right to where they may enter your body.”
7. Stay home if you’re sick.
If you feel sick, do the members of your community a favor and stay home. This applies to children who go to school as well as adults who work outside the home. If you’re unfamiliar with your workplace’s sick day policy, ask about it now even if you feel healthy. And if you're a parent, now’s the time to figure out a childcare plan if your kid needs to stay home sick during the day, or if schools close temporarily.
8. Get your flu shot if you haven’t already.
The best time to get your flu shot is early in the season, but late is better than never, especially as the threat of the coronavirus grows. “You do not want to be heading to the hospital with the flu during an outbreak of another disease,” Wolfe says. “You risk exposing yourself and your loved ones, and using resources that could be redirected in the event of an outbreak of coronavirus.” You can look up flu shot providers by ZIP code on the CDC’s website.