“We had a graduation celebration, but it was smaller than usual… only 20 people… and the older people just stayed a little while.”
“We meant to stay socially distanced… but you know kids.”
“God will protect me… I don’t need a mask.”
Oh, how I wish this were over. We all do.
And it will end.
It will end, but what we have to grapple with now is how many of us will die unnecessarily before it ends… because the rest of us “had to get our hair cut” or thought this was some kind of political “hoax”… or just couldn’t be bothered.
Because I am a physician, I have a lot of friends and family who call to ask some version of “Do you think it would be safe if….” I usually respond by telling them what I’m doing and then answer questions as they try to figure out the changes they need to make to be safe.
I am in awe of how much we have learned about how the virus spreads in aerosols, how it stays on surfaces and how very infectious it is. We owe a huge debt of gratitude to the scientists who have tackled this pandemic with heart, mind and soul. This knowledge is guiding us, protecting us, and is essential to save lives.
So, with gratitude for the science that has helped us better understand #COVID19, here’s what I tell my friends and family we are doing when they ask….
Stay Home. We stay home unless it’s for an essential need. For example – we would go to the dentist for a painful tooth (but not for a routine cleaning). We have supported our local restaurants with pick up or delivery, but we don’t go to restaurants yet. When we do, it will only be outside and only if we are sure CDC guidelines for restaurants are being followed. There is no way we would go inside for a movie, rally, worship or other public gathering. The data are more than clear… large gatherings inside are the highest risk activities right now.
I get our vegetables from Pierre at a Plant It Forward farmer’s market sponsored by Dandelion Cafe. (I’m mentioning them on purpose because having these just picked vegetables has been a true gift!) But I have the rest of my groceries delivered. I ask the delivery person to put them on the step (by text). I wear a mask, and don’t open the door until they are more than 6 feet away to thank them. (BTW, they are doing amazing work to keep our communities safe – please tip often and as much as you can).
One of the questions I get asked about staying home is “but I’m young… isn’t it ok for me to go out?”. The answer is yes and no. Younger people are less likely to die or develop chronic lung disease from COVID19, but it’s not impossible. Here’s the real issue – If you end up infected with COVID19 you’ll infect people around you that are at high risk… and they could die or have horrible outcomes from the disease. Do you really want to risk hurting your grandparents or that nice guy at the store who always says “Hi” to you? Think about creating a “quarantine pod” as an alternative to going out to restaurants, bars and concerts… it’s not going to be the same, but it’s a good compromise to keep socially connected while being as safe as possible.
Do it virtually if you can. If we are asked to run or be in a meeting, we do everything possible to make it virtual. If you are in charge of gatherings, this is an important responsibility. There is no reason to expose any of your colleagues or employees unnecessarily.
I’m an academic surgeon. I can’t do surgery virtually, but I can do a lot of clinic visits by video. I can do all my group teaching and committee meetings by Zoom. There is no moral justification to have meetings in person if they can be done online and I’m happy, as someone who can decide, to make sure my students and colleagues aren’t exposed to more risk than necessary.
Socialize outside. If I am meeting a friend (or friends) I’ll only do it outside and only if we have discussed in advance how to manage the event. I’m excited that this weekend I’m going to an outside workshop that FAMHouston is facilitating to teach refugees how to grow vegetables in container gardens. These are my friends, so I really want to see them! We have established in advanced that we will meet CDC guidelines with everyone in masks and more than 6 feet apart.
#WearYourMask. If I’m around anyone, I wear a mask, and I ask them to wear one – AND we stay at least 6 feet apart. The masks only come off if we are outside and more than 6 feet apart. It’s also really important to wear it properly! In particular, if your nose is hanging out, you might as well not have it on. Two other important things: 1) A face shield alone is better than nothing, but isn’t as protective as a mask and 2) the masks with the “breathing valve” aren’t worth wearing. Remember, my mask protects you. Your mask protects me. That’s why if we all wear masks we can stop the spread of COVID19!
Exercise with a mask available. When I’m outside exercising, I have a cooling mask (it is Houston, after all!) around my neck. As soon as I see someone coming towards me, I pull up my mask. I get a good 20-30 feet beyond them before it comes back down.
Bring your own glass. I had a friend over for a glass of wine on the back porch not too long ago. They didn’t come through my house (and I would do the same for them). I opened the gate to the backyard, and they walked through my back yard to the back porch where I met them. They brought their own wine glass. We sat on opposite sides of the porch, 10 feet away from each other and had a wonderful, soul healing visit.
Assume if someone else has touched it there is COVID19 on it. It’s a long shot, but what if… the UPS driver has COVID19 but is asymptomatic, coughs on their hands, picks up the package they are delivering … and now you pick it up. One inadvertent rub of the eyes at that point could easily mean an infection.
We put an old towel on a table and designated that table as “contaminated.” We put new packages on the table and immediately wash our hands. (If you work in an OR, you will understand this well… if you touch something contaminated you “rescrub” i.e. wash your hands before touching something else.) This sounds complicated but it’s not… if it’s just been handled by someone else, we assume it’s contaminated.
We have found that it’s easy to leave things on the table for 3 days before we open them (surprised us, too!). Obviously, groceries that need to be in the refrigerator are a little different (they get put in new plastic bags which go into the fridge). And, because three days may be long for some items…bottles of beverages get washed with soap and water before they go in the fridge.
Now, I have to be honest. A lot of new data are coming out that says we may be on the far end of safe with this. Some surfaces clearly are more at risk (like door handles), but things that get delivered are probably not really a problem. This is one to figure out your comfort level, stay up to date on the new info, and come up with a reasonable plan.
I hope this helps.
Whenever I am tempted to say “just this once” … or fall into the trap of feeling like it can’t really be “that bad” to meet without masks, I think about how all my colleagues are putting their lives on the line to care for infected people… and how I would feel if I were the one responsible for their death, or the death of someone I know and love.
Be safe and take care of each other.