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Five things to consider before making plans during a pandemic

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As state and local governments lift restrictions and local businesses reopen, many of us wonder how to balance our desire to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus while returning to some of our favorite activities.

Measures like voluntary social distancing, working from home and statewide stay-at-home orders helped states like Illinois and Michigan control the spread of COVID-19. As numbers of new cases went down, state and local governments lifted restrictions, allowing our businesses and communities to reopen.

When we’re around others – whether at church, at school, at work or at our favorite restaurant – we might be accepting at least a small amount of risk we could be exposed to the virus, but there are things we can all do to make these activities safer for everyone.

“We all like to do these things, and if we want to keep doing them and having more options, we need to protect ourselves and the people in our communities,” said Douglas Kasper, MD. As the section head of infectious disease at the University of Illinois College of Medicine Peoria, Dr. Kasper has been a leader in the OSF HealthCare response to COVID-19.

Some activities might put you at greater risk of exposure than others. When you’re considering whether you and your family should participate in an activity, Dr. Kasper recommends you account for these factors to make your decision.

Consider the community

State and national public health agencies tend to report numbers of COVID-19 cases by state, but local data exists for most communities that is much more relevant to our daily lives.

“Any activity we’re going to talk about, the baseline is understanding what is going on in the community as a whole,” Dr. Kasper said.

A person in Pontiac, Illinois, for example, might be at lower risk of contracting COVID-19 than someone who lives in Evergreen Park, where more positive cases have been identified.

The same logic applies to someone in Escanaba, Michigan, where they would have a much lower chance of exposure than someone in Detroit.

Local and county public health departments are also good sources of information for the level of COVID-19 risk in your community.

See Illinois and Michigan COVID-19 cases by county.

Opt outdoors

In general, any activity is going to be safer outdoors, compared with indoors, because natural airflow helps to disperse the virus.

That’s partly because the virus is so small – smaller than even a single cell. And the droplets that spread the virus are also very small. Because they weigh so little, even a slight bit of airflow can help disperse the droplets – or spread them out so much that they aren’t likely to infect anyone.

“When you’re outdoors – even the natural wind when it’s pretty still – you’re still going to get more dispersion than in a confined space,” Dr. Kasper said.

UV light also plays some role in killing the virus. In fact, artificial UV light is used in some cases as a way to sanitize equipment. But while the sun also provides UV rays, they aren’t the most effective way to control a virus, as evidenced by outbreaks in sunny places like Florida, Texas, Arizona and California.

Be aware of shared surfaces

When you’re in a shared space with others, think about how many common surfaces you might be touching, and whether those surfaces are likely to be cleaned.

Producing droplets is something we can’t control. All of us will produce droplets as part of our normal body function, whether eating, talking or simply breathing.

“Those droplets are going to land somewhere,” Dr. Kasper said. “On commonly used surfaces, you’re going to get a continued buildup of virus particulate, which can survive over some time.”

If you can’t avoid those shared surfaces, consider how they can be sanitized to reduce risk. And remember to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer often.

Keep your distance

When we talk about stopping the spread of a virus like the one that causes COVID-19, the key is distance, Dr. Kasper explained.

The virus can’t do much on its own. It can’t survive for long outside of a host, and it can’t travel from one person to another without hitching a ride on those droplets.

To stop the chain of transmission without a vaccine or herd immunity, we need to increase the distance between individuals or decrease the distance the virus is able to travel.

Forms of distancing include:

  • Social distancing, or avoiding groups of people.
  • Physical distancing, which means being near people, but maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between individuals.
  • Masking, which limits how far a droplet spreads from a person’s nose or mouth.

Do your part

For any public health intervention to be effective, the most important criteria for success is compliance.

“The main principles of public health are: Can you apply the interventions to everyone at the same time, and can we do it cheaply?” Dr. Kasper said.

Handwashing was the original public health intervention in the early 1900s. Masking and distancing are additional maneuvers that can be easily applied to everybody with minor inconvenience and risk to those involved, and they don’t cost anything.”

Dr. Kasper also acknowledged the economic cost of avoiding going about our normal lives. People should do things like eat at restaurants and support local businesses. The key is to make sure we’re doing those things responsibly.

“We all have good intentions not to cough and sneeze on each other, but it’s often that we have so many routine activities we don’t think about how much we overlap with other people. Masking, disinfecting, washing are meant to protect us from inadvertently making a mistake.”

Last Updated: December 21, 2021

About Author: Laura Nightengale

Laura Nightengale was a writing coordinator for OSF HealthCare. 

She has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Kansas and worked as a reporter at a daily newspaper for five years before joining OSF HealthCare. 

When she’s not working, Laura loves to travel, read, and spend time with her family, including her sweet and ornery dog.

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Categories: COVID-19