In a world that seems eerily turned upside down, I find myself alone in my thoughts some days. I think, “Surely, I will wake tomorrow to the welcome news that the United States has finally taken the difficult yet necessary steps to slow the spread of a global viral pandemic currently working its way through all our communities, largely unseen!” Every day, I see news outlets interviewing politicians, intelligence officials from multiple administrations, international business executives, first responders, doctors, nurses and distraught family members of individuals testing positive for the coronavirus disease-2019, also known as SARS-nCOV-2.
No one wants to become the next “newly infected individual.” Yet, we all know “shelter-in-place” emergency orders cannot continue indefinitely. We all want to live our lives safely and responsibly as our cities begin easing us out of these “lockdown” measures. Now is the time for community-wide education and training programs that promote practices each of us must adopt to slow the spread of COVID-19 infections, hospitalizations and related deaths.
The key will be to establish effective, long-term practices that a majority of our citizens are both willing and able to implement within the household. States and municipalities may need to consider public-private partnerships designed to ensure that underserved populations have the resources needed for widespread adoption and full compliance. This long-term educational process will require both purposeful participation and a considerable commitment from each of us to be successful.
I am a trained molecular virologist with more than 20 years of combined teaching and research experience studying all types of microbes, including viruses. Because of my specialized training and experiences, colleagues, family and friends have asked, “Dr. Buckley, what are you focusing on as we find our way through this global pandemic, and how do I make sense of all the studies and recommendations being reported and published?”
Our focus moving into the “new normal” must embrace some fundamental societal changes—practical, long-term adjustments to our daily lives designed to dramatically slow rates of COVID-19 infection. In so doing, we will be providing the scientific community time to develop effective medical therapies and a vaccine.
Determining how we got to this point is a conversation best left for another time. Looming large, however, is a reasonably predictable and unfortunately bleak future, unless we adopt for ourselves and our loved ones some sensible, effective practices and ways of thinking that will result in safer more responsible living starting today.
What Can We Control?
The sheer volume of news reports covering COVID-19 testing capacity (RT-PCR based as well as serological) and availability would lead any reasonable citizen to conclude that widespread testing is our most powerful weapon until an approved vaccine can be widely deployed. Testing is, indeed, singularly critical to detect and isolate asymptomatic cases.
But, we all have a much more powerful weapon to dramatically lower infection rates and slow the spread of this virus in our homes, our communities, our city and this state. That weapon is personal responsibility. Finding our way through this pandemic is going to require each of us to slow down! Yes, slow… down. Each of us will have to take time to evaluate how we go through our typical day, paying close attention to what we do with our hands; when we put our hands and fingers near our eyes, nose and mouths; and when we put our fingers in our mouths.
Why? Because we as scientists understand the routes of infection: the delicate mucosal film bathing our eyes that keeps them from drying out (conjunctiva), our nasal passages, our oral cavities, and any open cuts, sores or wounds on our bodies. That’s it. SARS-nCov-2 cannot infect individuals directly through skin contact.
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With this basic yet powerful knowledge, we can each go about the business of reconstructing how we approach our daily lives (and you thought it was all about “testing, testing, and testing,” didn’t you?). As individuals, we have very little influence when it comes to testing. But, we do have considerable influence over our bodies and, to a large extent, our immediate surroundings.
So let’s pay attention to what we can control.
Watch Your Mouth and Your Hands
When was the last time you thought about your toothbrushes? How do you store them? Are they a safe distance from the toilet in an upright container that allows them to air dry? Do you have all the kids’ toothbrushes inches away from each other in that same cute toothbrush holder? When was the last time you placed each toothbrush in a separate small cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide to sterilize? Are you replacing all toothbrushes at a minimum every three months as the American Dental Association recommends?
And what about your fingernails? Are you keeping your nail bed clean? How about underneath your nails? If you have natural nails, have you considered trimming them to keep them short?
Are you a nail biter? If so, you’ve got to kick that habit. You are exposing yourself to potential infection every time you put your finger (and those nails) in your mouth. Same for teenagers and adults who have not yet broken the habit of sucking a thumb now and then (yes, it happens; I’ve seen it with my own eyes). If you are “rocking the acrylic nails,” are you following the cleaning guidelines your nail technician provided you?
If you wear contact lenses, consider returning to traditional glasses until you absolutely trust your hand-washing technique. Limiting the need to touch your fingers to your eyes will reduce inadvertent infections.
Keep Your Nose Clean
What happens when you feel that irritation in your nose? Are you still using your fingers to clear out debris? In other words, are you a nose picker? If so, now’s the time to stop this practice.
The skin inside our noses is very delicate. You’d be surprised how easily it is scratched, providing a perfect, microscopic opening for SARS-nCov-2 infectious particles to slip right inside. The correct way, you ask? First, wash your hands. Next, grab a tissue, paper towel or other disposable paper product (not a rag!). Now, blow (and “probe” with the tissue if necessary). Immediately throw away the tissue, and yes, wash your hands!
Our nostrils are very good at collecting dirt, bacteria, and viral particles, and trapping it all in sticky mucous. That is what we end up needing to clear out of our noses. So, if you don’t wash your hands after blowing (or picking) your nose, you could have just contaminated your fingers and hands with bacteria or viruses. All that would be left is for you to rub your eyes, the corners of your mouth, or grab some finger food, and you’ve infected yourself.
On the Surface
Our kitchen habits present another opportunity to spread the virus. Did you wash your hands before putting them in the bread bag to grab some slices for that sandwich? How about when you placed your hands in that communal bowl of grapes? If your hands aren’t clean, and you open and close the refrigerator frequently, guess who could be contaminating a high-use surface in the kitchen? When others come behind you and open that same refrigerator door, your entire household could potentially become infected from that common contaminated surface.
For the reasons mentioned above, it’s a good idea to wipe down “high use” surfaces in your home at least two to three times per day. Pay special attention to doorknobs used often (bathroom doors, front doors, back doors), refrigerator door handles, kitchen and bathroom sink handles, all toilet handles, and light switches used regularly. Don’t forget to wipe down those television remote controls and the controllers to those gaming consoles as well. Once you begin to think about these “high use” items and areas in your own home, you will begin to pay more attention to them wherever you go.
The New Normal
As we resume daily activities in increasingly larger social gatherings, I encourage each of us to please remain aware of when, where, and how to reduce exposure for ourselves and our loved ones. Coronavirus certainly has more surprises ahead for us as scientists in terms of health outcomes. I am committed to providing practical information to you so that each of us can live as safely and responsibly as possible.
It may sound a bit overwhelming at first, but with practice, all of these adjustments and sacrifices will become habit. Here’s a bonus benefit: when you make this a part of how you live your life moving forward in “the new normal,” you will likely notice that you (and hopefully your family) have fewer colds and flu since they are transmitted the same way. Here’s to our collective health! Stay safe and wash those hands!
Dr. Cedric O. Buckley is a molecular virologist with a doctoral degree in microbiology and molecular genetics from Michigan State University. He currently serves on Mayor Chokwe A. Lumumba’s COVID-19 Pandemic Taskforce for the city of Jackson, Miss. He has extensively studied viral replication and computational microbial genomics. As a tenured Associate Professor of Biology at Jackson State University, Dr. Buckley furthered his training through collaborations with Dr. Jeffrey Conner, Evolutionary Genomics, Kellogg Biological Station-Michigan State University and Dr. Bruce Birren, Director of the Genomic Center for Infectious Diseases-The Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard. He is the founder of “A Scientist’s Approach,” and can be contacted at [email protected].
This column does not necessarily reflect the views of the Jackson Free Press.