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There are the exam gloves, the surgical masks, the dubious supplements and the deceptive disinfectants. If unchecked Internet information is any guide, there’s an inexhaustible list of products you should buy to prepare for the spread of the coronavirus in the United States — which, according to U.S. health officials, was inevitable.
But here’s the thing: The virus may be novel, but you really don’t need to buy anything new or special to brace for it. The Washington Post spoke to epidemiology experts, and they said the most important aspect of preparedness costs nothing at all — calm.
There have been more than 1,000 confirmed cases of the virus in the United States and at least 31 deaths.
Days ago, as health officials across the country began identifying new cases, a study indicated that the coronavirus had been circulating in Washington state for more than a month, possibly infecting scores of people. The preliminary research came as federal agencies announced steps to expand testing for the virus, which causes a highly infectious respiratory disease called covid-19.
While the total number of U.S. cases is relatively low compared with China and, now, Italy, experts say it is still a good time for individuals, businesses, health-care systems and schools to reexamine their pandemic preparedness plans to make sure they’re ready.
So here’s what doctors, researchers and the CDC say you can do now — and in the event of a future outbreak — to prepare and protect yourself.
Timothy Brewer is a professor of epidemiology and medicine at UCLA’s Fielding School of Public Health and its David Geffen School of Medicine, yet his central piece of advice is not exactly medical.
“Don’t panic,” he said. “There’s no value in panicking or telling people to be afraid. Don’t let fear and emotion drive the response to this virus. That can be extremely difficult because it is new, and we’re still learning about it, but don’t allow fear of what we don’t know about the virus to overwhelm what we do know.”
Brewer said it’s important to remember that covid-19 is a respiratory disease, as is influenza, and while there’s not a vaccine for it, there are tried-and-true ways to deal with this type of illness — which we will cover here.
A few minutes into a phone call with a reporter, Brewer paused, coughed and then explained himself. “I’m currently recovering from a non-covid respiratory virus,” he said.
But the precautions he took when fighting his influenza-like illness are no different from what people should be doing every day to stave off coronavirus and other respiratory diseases, Brewer said.
You have seen the guidance before: Wash your hands regularly. Cover your nose and mouth when you sneeze. And when you’re sick, stay home from work or school and drink lots of fluids. The CDC recommends washing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds after using the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose or sneezing. It also advises not to touch your eyes, nose and mouth and to clean objects and surfaces you touch often — a common household cleaner will suffice.
“These are all things you can do to prevent the spread of pretty much any respiratory virus,” Brewer said.
And for the record, he added, he stayed home sick last week.
“I practiced what I preached,” Brewer said.
Don’t touch your face
It’s exactly what will make you sick, but it’s so hard to stop. A 2015 study found that we touch our face an average of two dozen times an hour, and 44 percent of that touching involves contact with eyes, nose or mouth.
All that touching is risky. People are more likely to get the coronavirus by picking it up from a surface and touching their face than they are to breathe in droplets directly from someone who is infected, said William Sawyer, a family doctor in Sharonville, Ohio.
“They will give it to themselves, not the person down the hall,” he said.
Not touching your facial mucous membranes, an area known as the T-zone, is perhaps the most important step you can take to prevent an infection, said Sawyer.
How do you stop? You have to “outsmart” your habit, said Elliot Berkman, a psychology professor at the University of Oregon who studies habits and behaviors. One way to do that quickly is to change something in your environment, he said. Wear something on your hands or face (not a mask if you’re not sick) that can serve as a cue, an interruption to an automatic action.
If you have an urge to scratch, cover your finger with a tissue first, said Sawyer. Avoid touching your face with a bare hand, but also know that gloves can pick up germs just as easily.
Keep the shopping cart light
You probably don’t need to buy anything new, but if you’re already on your way to the drugstore, Brewer has some advice.
“Don’t go crazy,” he said. “You don’t need to go out and stock up on lots of things.”
And those surgical masks? The U.S. surgeon general has some words about those.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” Jerome M. Adams tweeted. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
Brewer says masks are used to keep someone who is infected from spreading it to others. If you’re not sick, you don’t need to wear one, and if you do, it’s not preventing you from getting sick. Common surgical masks block the droplets coming out of a sick person from getting into the air, but they are not tight enough to prevent what’s already in the air from getting in.
The CDC agrees, writing on its website, “CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases.”
There are specialized masks — known as N95 masks because they filter out 95 percent of airborne particles — that are more effective, and many retailers have sold out of them. But there’s a problem: The masks are difficult to use without training. They must be fitted and tested to work properly.
“If you just buy them at CVS, you’re not going to do all that,” Brewer said. “You’re not going to get it fit-tested, and you’re not going to be wearing it properly, so all you’ve done is spend a lot of money on a very fancy face mask.”
The same goes for exam gloves, Brewer said, which can get contaminated just like our hands. There’s no need for them if you’re washing your hands properly and often, he said.
If you’re itching to buy something, you can stick to the typical respiratory-virus medicine: decongestants, anti-inflammatory drugs and acetaminophen for fevers.
‘Practice makes permanent’
“A lot of preparedness is planning ahead of time,” said Saskia V. Popescu, a senior infection-prevention epidemiologist for a Phoenix-based hospital system. “Practice makes permanent. If I have a plan, that means I don’t have to panic.”
You should have a plan for child care, for getting to work and for feeding pets, she said. That’s good advice in general, she added, not just in the age of coronavirus.
“This is a good reminder to go through your resources and your plans so that, should it get more serious, you are not taken off guard,” she said. “People think they need to go out and buy stuff, but so much of it is just having a plan.”
Consider the kids
There is no evidence that children are more prone to contracting covid-19, according to the CDC. In fact, as The Post’s William Wan and Joel Achenbach reported, “one of the few mercies of the spreading coronavirus is that it leaves young children virtually untouched.”
What few reports the CDC does have indicate symptoms in children look a lot like symptoms in adults: fever, runny nose and cough. But severe complications are uncommon in children.
Even though their risk isn’t any higher than it is for adults, the coronavirus could spread rapidly between children simply because of the germ-intense nature of schools. The CDC recommends teaching your kids good preventive habits for all illnesses — make sure their vaccinations are up to date, including for influenza; wash hands frequently using soap and water or hand sanitizer; avoid people who are sick.
Most important, if your child has any symptoms of illness, keep them home from school to prevent the spread of illness, whether it’s the coronavirus or not.
Be mindful of where you are
Health officials have stressed keeping your distance from people who are sick, especially when it comes to respiratory viruses. It is worth considering limiting exposure to large groups, especially during flu season, and more and more institutions and jurisdictions are now mandating such social distancing.
“Any congregation of people is a setup for spreading an infectious agent,” said Stanley Perlman, an infectious-disease expert at the University of Iowa.
Most of us like to look at our smartphones and wear headphones, but in confined spaces, such as mass transit, it’s important to look around and see what’s going on, to see where everyone’s hands are going and make a mental note to wash up later.
Popescu recommends avoiding the middle of a packed train car and doing your best to turn away if someone is coughing nearby.
But awareness cuts both ways. While the United States is going to have more coronavirus cases, she said, it is important not to panic. “Just because someone has the sniffles or has a cough, it doesn’t mean they have the coronavirus,” she said. “There are a lot of respiratory viruses.”
Watch what you read
Misinformation about coronavirus is spreading fast. Popescu and other experts call this an “infodemic,” and it can be as harmful as any disease. Hoaxes, lies and junk science about the coronavirus have swirled online since the earliest cases were reported, mostly through social media.
“People are more click-susceptible during these events because there’s more info and people aren’t sure who to trust,” University of Washington researcher Jevin West told The Post this month.
Look to trustworthy sources, such as the CDC, the World Health Organization and local health departments, to stay informed, Popescu said — not the anonymous user doling out advice in Twitter mentions.
“It can be really easy to go online, buy supplies and freak out, and then just stay on Facebook,” she said. “But stay up to date.”
Avoid drastic financial decisions
The frenzy over what the virus could mean for the global economy caused the worst weekly loss for stocks since the 2008 financial crisis. That was followed by one of the worst single days on Wall Street since the Great Recession.
While some families might be concerned about money tied up in the market, making drastic decisions is unnecessary, according to Xi Chen, assistant professor of public and global health and economics at the Yale School of Public Health.
“The key thing is how long [the stock plunge] can last,” he said. “If it’s short-term, it might not affect the supply chain.”
Chen pointed to severe acute respiratory syndrome, better known as SARS, which affected 24 countries in Asia, Europe and North and South America in the early 2000s, as a time when the market suffered for about a quarter before recovering with very strong growth.
Don’t forget the flu shot
The coronavirus includes flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough and shortness of breath, according to the CDC. Getting a flu shot could ease people’s concerns about the new virus and also help health professionals, said Albert Ko, department chair and professor of epidemiology and medicine at the Yale School of Public Health.
“The best thing people can do is get immunized for influenza to free up services for people who come in with coronavirus,” he said, noting that initial signs of illness for flu and coronavirus closely mirror each other. “When we’re testing people [for coronavirus], it reduces the noise about who has it.”
As the coronavirus has spread, so has anti-Asian prejudice.
The WHO has urged government agencies to do what they can to prevent discrimination against specific populations, since stigmatization can fuel the spread of the outbreak by driving marginalized individuals to hide infection and avoid seeking treatment.
“Remember to not let fear override your common humanity about how you treat other people,” Brewer said. “Just remember we’re all in this together. This is a virus. It does not think. It is not planning. We shouldn’t be blaming our neighbors or our fellow colleagues or people in the community because a virus happens to exist and is spreading.”
Kim Bellware contributed to this report.