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Protecting Against Coronavirus

By Dr. Jen Volland, VP Program Development, NRC Health

The best method of protection against the coronavirus (COVID-19) is to avoid exposure in the first place.1 By following these recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), individuals can minimize their chances of infection:

  • Covering the nose and mouth with a mask when around others (or self-isolating, if symptomatic)
  • Washing hands often, and for at least 20 seconds each time, with soap (or using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer)
  • Avoiding close contact by physical distancing (keeping six feet or more away from others)
  • Cleaning and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces—including tables, doorknobs, light switches, countertops, handles, phones, and sinks—each day
  • Self-monitoring daily for signs of COVID-19 (more information on symptoms can be found here2)

Depending on the source of information and how the numbers are calculated, statistics of total cases and reported deaths can vary greatly. In one report, made on July 31, 2020, the United States had 40 states with 14-day surges in cases per capita. Only six states and one territory had reported decreases in their daily cases at that time.3 But regardless of source, the numbers seem to be reflecting a general trend toward an increase in cases rather than a decline, as states begin to reopen and relax guidelines.

With the easing of restrictions, there will be a natural tendency toward complacency regarding possible exposure and contamination. Even well-intended facilities have started to go through the motions as the pandemic has continued. Whether you’re a parent with children going back to school, a high-risk individual, or anyone else in an affected community, a few extra precautionary measures—put in place now as a routine—can help reduce risk in the future:

Grocery-store protocol. When the pandemic first began, grocery stores quickly set a high degree of watchfulness on sanitation and public safety. One-way markers were used for directing aisle traffic flow, shields were erected between customers and employees, conveyor belts were often regularly washed between shoppers’ purchases, carts were wiped down by attendants between uses, six-foot separation icons were placed on the ground to aid social distancing, and some stores even restricted entry and exit to certain doors. As time has progressed, fewer and fewer of these steps have been sustained—and many grocery stores are on their way to become a hot spot once more. So, what factors should you be especially aware of?

If you do not see someone cleaning the grocery carts, don’t assume that the ones available for use are already sanitized—nor that the facility has even provided staff with training on how to properly sanitize them. Oftentimes, staff will simply clean the top of a push-handrail before moving on to the next cart, leaving the rest of the rail that the fingers wrap around, as well as the entire basket area, unsanitized (If a cart user sneezes or coughs, the droplets are most likely going to fall in the basket area.)

You may also find wipes at the front of a store to sanitize a cart yourself; make sure they are not dry before relying on them. A wipe cannot properly sanitize if it is no longer wet with solution. If there are wipes available that are still wet, use a few of them to wipe down your cart. If these are dried out or unavailable, have a mini hand sanitizer clip-on and a few napkins ready in your purse or bag. This will allow for a rapid, effective makeshift wipe.

Beyond cleaning your shopping cart, you might consider carrying a couple of non-Ziploc baggies to cover your hands when using credit-card reader keypads. (If necessary, the baggie can also be used to cover your hands when you touch an unsanitized cart rail—it is not as convenient, but it does work.)

When you are at a checkout, knowing that the conveyor belt may no longer be getting cleaned as well as it should, try to stack easier-to-wipe down items on the conveyor belt to help reduce exposure. Items you will cook at home pose less risk of transmitting COVID-19; however, many staples from the grocery store come boxed, rather than cooked. Consider putting similar items together, since some checkers will scan one item, enter the total number of that item being purchased, and put the remaining ones in the bag together as a batch. This reduces the amount of hand contact on each product.

Credit cards. The credit-card readers that many businesses are using are another high-touch item to consider. Think about the machine’s construction: there’s no simple way to clean the inside of the chip reader where cards are inserted. And credit cards are among the items most likely to be routinely touched on a per-day basis in a household. As a result, card readers at stores are exposed to many uses per day of cards from many different households, all of which come in direct contact with many different people’s hands. (Remember also that a considerable portion of the time an individual spends holding their credit card may be time spent sitting in a car—while not wearing a mask.) Store staff who hand you a credit-card reader to use may be wearing gloves to protect themselves; however, your credit card always has the potential of coming back out of the reader contaminated. If that credit card is then immediately put back into a purse or wallet, it can contaminate everything else it touches.

To avoid this, keep a bottle of hand sanitizer available. While the card is being read, you can get some sanitizer into your hands to clean the card (on both sides) immediately upon retrieving it. Just be aware that sanitizing your credit card in this way, with a proper alcohol-based sanitizer, can remove the signature on the back of the card, so you may need to re-sign your card periodically.

Gas Stations. Another often-overlooked high-contact item is the gas pump. Fortunately, there’s an easy solution that won’t clutter up your car. Keep a box of non-Ziploc plastic baggies to use to cover your hand before touching both the number pad and the gas pump, then turn the bag inside-out while removing it to avoid touching the potentially contaminated side of the bag. Most cars have inner-door insets where a box of baggies will fit snugly.

Shoes. Shoes are a major potential transmission route for COVID-19. If someone with the virus has sneezed or coughed in an area recently, there is a good chance that gravity has sent those viral droplets straight to the floor, where the virus can live for extended periods of time. Any shoes that pass through those areas of contamination then become sources of spread.

Here’s an easy process to adopt to avoid contamination from shoes within the home. Create two separate spaces in the garage and in any other areas leading into the house—a clean zone and a dirty zone, right next to each other. When you return home, stay in the dirty zone to remove your shoes, and step into the clean zone only with bare or socked feet. When you put on your shoes to go outside again, step first into the clean zone with your bare or socked feet, then place them one at a time directly into your shoes without ever bringing the shoes out of the dirty zone. Once your shoes are on, avoid the clean zone when you walk out.

Additional questionable purchases. At times, you may be uncertain about whether purchased items have been exposed to COVID-19. (Items purchased from outdoor gardening centers, for example, are often handled or stood over by many people throughout the day, many of whom are not wearing masks.) Transport such items in your car’s trunk if possible to prevent any particulate spreading around the car’s interior, and keep a bottle of antiviral cleaning solution and paper towels in the garage. That way, you can clean anything you are unsure about before entering the house with it.

Cleaning supplies. Cleaning supplies should always be checked to confirm their intended use. During a pandemic, when high-use brand items sell out quickly, lesser-known items can be viable replacements—but you must know which products work. You can quickly identify these by going to a local Walgreens or CVS to see what antiviral items they carry in the household section. For example, while many people were in grocery stores chasing down Clorox wipes, a lot of dollar-discount and drug stores had 409 multi-surface spray, Clorox cleaner and bleach spray, and Lysol all-purpose cleaner spray readily available—each of which is manufacturer-labeled as killing 99.9% of bacteria and viruses, just like Clorox wipes.

COVID-19 is a viral infection, so cleaning products need to contain antiviral chemicals to decontaminate against it. If you are using an antibacterial cleanser, it’s not necessarily providing you with the proper protection—so check the list of ingredients when selecting a cleaning agent. For example, the traditional blue Windex spray is only antibacterial; however, the multi-surface yellow Windex is antiviral, and will protect against COVID-19. It’s the only Windex that will fight COVID-19 as a disinfectant, and remained widely available while many other items sold out at the beginning of the pandemic; Fantastik is another potentially antiviral cleaner that remained readily available during the initial sell-out crisis.

Over the past few months, many states have experienced an increase in COVID-19 cases. Unfortunately, while some of these states have reinstated precautions—some even mandating the wearing of masks in public—many of the public-health measures that were put into place early on in the pandemic have begun to be ignored at businesses, stores, and other potentially dangerous gathering sites. Fortunately, there are several simple measures that can be taken by individuals to promote public safety and reduce the risk of further exposure to COVID-19. It requires an increased level of awareness to know where these opportunities present, and to take proper precaution when they do. But by following a few personal steps along with the CDC’s official recommendations, we can all help maximize our chances of beating the virus for good.

  1. Accessed at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/prevention.html
  2. Accessed at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/symptoms.html
  3. Accessed at: https://www.nationalgeographic.com/science/2020/05/graphic-tracking-coronavirus-infections-us/