How Coronavirus Spreads in Public Places and How to Protect Yourself

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The novel coronavirus can spread through the air as well as contact with contaminated surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, where the virus can live for up to 9 days. Getty Images
  • Experts say the canceling of events that draw large crowds is an important step in combating the further spread of the novel coronavirus.
  • The virus spreads like other viruses that cause common respiratory illnesses, such as the flu: via “droplets” that are excreted by coughing, sneezing, and breathing.
  • Anytime an individual is within close proximity to someone with an infection, there’s the potential to spread it through aerosolized droplets.
  • Transmission can also occur through contact with contaminated surfaces.
  • New research suggests that the virus can live on certain surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, for up to 9 days.

As the novel coronavirus continues to spread across the United States and the globe, the next fight to stop the disease it causes — COVID-19 — will occur at public gatherings from farmers markets to music festivals, and maybe even the 2020 Olympics.

On Wednesday, the World Health Organization (WHO) formally declared the outbreak of COVID-19 a pandemic, defined as “the worldwide spread of a new disease.”

In light of this designation — and as multiple nations around the world, including Europe, Asia, and Australia, try to contain the disease — governments, businesses, and organizations are attempting to limit contact by canceling large public gatherings to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.

These efforts have included the closure of theme parks, such as Disneyland and Disney World; the suspension of seasons for professional sporting leagues, like the NBA and NHL; and the rescheduling or canceling of festivals like Coachella and tech conferences like E3.

Mass closures have only added to a growing sense of worry and panic over the disease, which has already caused a prominently reported shortage of supplies — including hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies, and toilet paper — throughout the United States.

And while the effectiveness or necessity of stockpiling bleach wipes is debatable, experts contacted by Healthline say that limiting potential exposure of the virus at mass public gatherings is a good next step.

“I do think this is a legitimate way to prevent the spread or try to prevent the spread of the virus,” said Dr. Robin Patel, Mayo Clinic infectious disease specialist and president of the American Society for Microbiology.

“This virus is concerning. It is spreading in the United States, and really our best strategy to deal with it currently is to contain it,” she said.

Patel added: “Containment means where there are cases, we need to keep them from spreading so that other people don’t become infected… It’s at those events that people come together, and from the standpoint of transmission, not congregating in that manner does make sense.”

The novel coronavirus spreads like other viruses that cause common respiratory illnesses, such as the flu: via “droplets” that are excreted by coughing, sneezing, and breathing.

Anytime an individual is within close proximity to someone with a coronavirus infection, there’s the potential to spread it through aerosolized droplets.

Hence why public health officials, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), suggest limiting exposure through mass gatherings.

The CDC has even announced its own set of recommended guidelines for such events.

One of the recommendations for event organizers is determining when events need to be canceled, a recommendation that’s clearly been heeded by many organizations across the country.

Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency physician at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, told Healthline that he praises such a decision.

“It’s just not worth the risk,” he said.

“In the midst of community spread of COVID-19 within the U.S., organizers of large events, meetings, and festivals need to realize the potential risks to all attendees. It’s in the best interest of all parties involved to cancel such events,” Glatter added.

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More likely than transmission through direct contact, however, is through surface contact with the virus.

New research suggests that human coronaviruses can live on certain surfaces, such as plastic and stainless steel, for up to 9 days.

Surface contact can occur after droplets settle out of the air, meaning that things like doorknobs, keyboards, or frequently touched objects can be sources of exposure.

The bottom line, according to the CDC, is that individuals who fall into certain higher-risk categories — such as older adults and those who have serious chronic medical conditions (like heart disease, diabetes, or lung disease) — should avoid large crowds and mass public gatherings.

That doesn’t mean that healthy individuals necessarily need to cancel their summer plans. But there are things that everyone should do to stay safe.

“Meticulous hand hygiene — along with avoidance of touching your eyes, nose, or mouth — is paramount when dealing with this mode of spread,” Glatter said.

Those recommendations are also echoed by the CDC.

Patel also tells Healthline that there are plenty of common sense ways to keep yourself safe and help stop the potential spread of the disease.

“If someone is coughing, they should cover their cough with a tissue or their bent elbow… If someone is ill, they shouldn’t go to events or work or congregate with other people,” she said.

But as everything from concerts to sporting events get canceled, many will have to juggle their own needs for social interactions with concerns over this disease.

And that will be an evaluation individuals will have to make for themselves.

“People do need to make decisions about their risk and what they want to partake in,” Patel said.

“A music festival is not a requirement for anybody, but obviously it’s nice to be able to attend something like that. Anyone who would fall into a risk category for this, or a higher risk category, it might not make sense to do that,” she said.

What to do if you have COVID-19 symptoms

If you have COVID-19 symptoms or suspect you were exposed to the novel coronavirus, seek medical care.

You have several options for obtaining medical care, including seeing your primary healthcare provider. The CDC recommends calling your provider first so they can take the necessary steps to prepare for your visit and protect others from possible exposure to the virus.

Some healthcare providers also offer virtual visits through your smartphone or laptop, so you may not even need to leave your home for an initial assessment.

If you don’t have a primary healthcare provider, you can use this tool to find a local primary care office in your area.

If you have a medical emergency, call 911. Notify the operator that you have COVID-19 or suspect exposure to the novel coronavirus. If possible, put on a face mask before emergency medical services arrive.

Disclosure: Healthline maintains a partnership with some of the providers linked above and may receive compensation for services provided.

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