The state’s “Safer at Home” order is gone, overturned by the state Supreme Court. Dane County has begun to reopen as well, as the “Forward Dane” plan went into effect Tuesday, allowing restaurants and other businesses to open with limited capacity and allowing small gatherings.
Meanwhile, it’s hard to keep track of what you’re supposed to do — wear a mask or don’t, wear gloves, don’t wear gloves, stay inside, get outside.
To straighten it all out, we spoke with two experts: Dr. Nasia Safdar, an infectious disease physician at UW Health, and Dr. Ajay Sethi, an infectious disease epidemiologist at UW-Madison.
Based on those conversations, here are the main things you need to know.
Refresh your memory now and again.
Sethi said the best thing you can do is just brush up on official guidelines every now and then. You can find guidelines at the state Department of Health Services and the Centers for Disease Control websites.
“We get information from all different sources, including friends, family, social media,” Sethi said. “And sometimes our memory of what’s recommended can erode a little bit, especially when we go outside and we see people not always following all the guidelines. So I think just bringing that self awareness back to your forefront is a nice idea.”
The virus spreads most easily in the air — and it doesn’t take a cough.
“I think the main thing to remember is that the way COVID-19 spreads is by way of respiratory droplets that someone is emitting from their nose or mouth. That’s the main mechanism,” Safdar said. “So, if you think about it from that standpoint, then it would seem that things that would have the most impact in interrupting transmission would be maintaining that six foot distance whenever possible, wearing a face covering.”
Sethi said a recent study showed that just speaking can cause a person to emit droplets that stay in the air for as long as 14 minutes.
The most dangerous place is face to face — especially if it lasts more than 15 minutes.
“Limit your time in face to face contact with people,” Safdar said. “Sometimes it’s unavoidable, like a healthcare worker, for instance, has to examine patients. But, people that are in other lines of work, not everyone has to come to the office at the same time.”
It doesn’t take long to get exposed.
“Generally people maintaining at least 10 to 15 minutes of face to face contact, within a six foot distance, is what really confers risk,” Safdar said.
It’s most likely to spread indoors.
Sethi said the virus is most likely transmitted through “contaminated air, particularly indoors.
That’s where ventilation’s not going to be as high. People are less likely to stay away from one another, keep that physical distance. And so that’s where I think the mask use indoors is especially important.”
But it can spread outdoors, especially in a tight crowd.
The virus seems less likely to spread outdoors, but only because it’s easier to maintain six feet of distance.
“The only advantage to outdoors is that you can be spaced out,” Safdar said. “So, if you aren’t, then that’s not really making a difference.”
“Crowding is never helpful, indoors or outdoors,” Sethi said.
Running or walking is ok, even if other people are around.
“If you’re on a path and you’re going in opposite directions and you’re five feet apart and not six feet apart, that’s much lower risk than if you’re in the same produce aisle at the grocery store and you’re within five feet and the air circulation is not great and there’s more than two of you, then suddenly the risk increases a little bit,” Sethi said.
“Fleeting, transient contact doesn’t increase risk,” Safdar said. “So, if you happen to cross somebody on the street, that kind of thing, that doesn’t increase your risk.”
You probably don’t need to sanitize your groceries.
Despite early warnings, it’s not likely that the virus can easily spread from surfaces.
“Surfaces in theory can be contaminated,” Sethi said. “And I think people have found virus on surfaces, but it’s hard to know if that virus is alive and is able to infect you versus just the genetic material floating around. The evidence is pointing towards surfaces not being the major route of transmission. Maybe wiping down your groceries is overkill.”
“In terms of transmission, the major route is droplets,” Safdar said. “A much smaller route of transmission could potentially be if you have a contaminated surface and you’ve touched that surface and then you touch your nose and mouth. It’s a very relatively less important method of transmission because viruses typically don’t survive for too long outside in the environment. I think that, for example, if you were collecting groceries it makes sense to wash your hands before you touch your nose or mouth, and before you eat anything, which you would do normally, so that behavior doesn’t need to change. I’m not sure that we need to go to the extreme lengths of wiping down boxes of stuff, wearing gloves and wipes. I would say that’s unnecessary.”
But you should clean and sanitize surfaces you touch regularly — and not just because of COVID19.
Safdar said people should use “common sense, in terms of cleaning. People feel that they have to clean very aggressively but, really what we need to do is clean like we normally would using bleach or whatever other disinfection comes to hand. It’s just that in our normal lives we don’t focus too much on cleaning. And so, it’s a big change for people to start thinking about wiping down commonly used surfaces, like wiping down your phone or your computer, and we should be doing that anyway, but now COVID has made us more vigilant.”
Vitamin D is good for you, but doesn’t make you immune. Nor do any other supplements or nutrients.
You should always at least have a mask with you.
Even if you’re outdoors on your own, it’s best to be prepared.
“I think at the very least people should carry a mask because you can’t always control who’s going to be around you suddenly,” Sethi said. “A simple thing like crossing the street — crosswalk etiquette is so different now — I feel like it’s a game of chicken. You’re coming, approaching someone, who’s going to get out of the way first? It really, it’s hard to control whether you’re going to be able to maintain that distance. So that’s why wearing a mask is always a good idea, especially if you don’t have breathing issues, but carrying one at the very least I think is necessary.”
Your mental health matters, too.
Overthinking the threat of the virus can lead to an unhealthy level of anxiety, and too much social isolation can damage your mental health.
“You can go to the nth degree with things like this and you can start thinking, ‘Well, is everything that I’m eating or touching potentially contaminated,'” Safdar said. “That kind of thinking, besides being anxiety-provoking, is also probably unnecessary.”
“We have to think of ourselves holistically,” Sethi said. “We want to do what we want to do to prevent COVID. I think it’s also good just to remember that a lot of people are scared still. Business owners are scared. Nobody wants to be a contributor to ongoing transmission. So I’m just saying that if we keep ourselves sort of in check and mentally healthy, and if others do the same, then as a community, we can move forward.”
This story has been updated to correctly reflect Dr. Sethi’s title.