Each week, we answer "frequently asked questions" about life during the coronavirus crisis. And we ask readers to send in their queries. Some of the questions we get are a little ... unusual. They may not be the most critical health questions. Yet they are definitely interesting. So this week, here is a sampling of both frequently and infrequently asked questions. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at email@example.com with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."
Is it safe for a repair person to work in my home?
When it comes to bringing home a repairperson, it's essential to weigh the need for the fix against the potential transmission risk.
"It all depends on how urgent they think the repair is needed," says Dr. Mark Kortepeter, professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health.
"Everything we do has to be a risk-benefit calculation, and I wouldn't stop a necessary repair if it's really needed — just like I wouldn't stop going to the grocery store."
Some repairs can be really necessary for the comfort and safety of your home life, Kortepeter says — and if that's the case, he says there are things you can do to ensure the risk of spreading the virus is low as it can be.
To limit particle exchange with the service worker, ask them to do the usual things: wear a mask, take off their shoes and use hand sanitizer before they begin working. For your own protection and theirs, everyone in your family should also wear a mask for the duration of time they're doing work in your house, he says.
While they're working, it's a good idea to stay out of the room until they're done with the job, and disinfect the area in addition to any doorknobs or surfaces the repairperson may have touched during their visit. If they ask to use your bathroom, it can be awkward to say no, so Kortepeter says to just try not to enter right after they've flushed.
For extra caution, Harvard Medical School physician Dr. Abraar Karan also recommends calling the repair company in advance to inquire if it screens workers for COVID symptoms and potential virus exposures.
You should also consider who is at home, says Karan. If there's a high-risk, immunocompromised family member, consider postponing the repair or avoiding that individual's contact with the technician as much as possible by keeping them in another room.
New research shows that flushing a toilet can release lingering clouds of coronavirus particles found in fecal matter into the air. What risk do these 'toilet plumes' pose for infection?
Right now, scientists aren't exactly sure how significant the risk of flushing is when it comes to getting infected with COVID-19, explains Kortepeter. But there are still some bathroom hygiene measures you should take in the short run to minimize the potential chance of transmission.
Though viral coronavirus particles have been detected in fecal matter, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it's "unclear whether the virus found in feces may be capable of causing COVID-19." And, "while [scientists] have detected lingering SARS-CoV-2 RNA in air samples above toilets, [they] have not grown virus from these samples in culture to see if viable virus could be isolated," explains Karan in an email to NPR. "[And that's] the important question for transmission risk."
Though it hasn't been documented, Kortepeter says he could imagine a few ways toilet plumes could potentially lead to infection. Aerosolized coronavirus particles may linger in the air after a flush, which could be inhaled by a later toilet user. Or, he hypothesizes, heavier droplets could "settle" on surfaces — say a toilet seat, the floor or metal canisters holding toilet paper. These particles could later be picked up by touch and transferred to susceptible parts of the face (eyes, nose, mouth), causing infection.
But these are only educated guesses, says Kortepeter. And it's still not clear what the toilet to person transmission risk looks like — or how significant it is.
In the meantime, doctors suggest taking precautionary steps in the immediate future to minimize the chance of virus spread from flush plumes — especially if you're using a public restroom or a bathroom that isn't yours. One tip from Kortepeter is to close the lid of the toilet before flushing to limit the amount of fecal particles pushed into the air from the pressure of the flush. He also recommends wearing a mask to minimize droplet inhalation and washing your hands with soap and water after using the restroom to kill any viral particles you may have picked up.
And, he adds, "minimize the amount of time you're in the restroom," Kortepeter says. "Choose a stall that hasn't just been vacated before you, or wait a minute."
Finally, if you're living with someone who's been infected and have multiple bathrooms in your home, Kortepeter suggests confining them to just one toilet to minimize the risk of transmission. For those with just one bathroom, it's a good idea to follow the above guidelines regarding mask-wearing, washing hands and closing the lid when flushing to avoid potential transmission from plumes.
Is it OK to go to the salon again for services such as manicures, pedicures or massages?
When it comes to salon services, researchers say there's a few things you should consider. But the biggest question to ask yourself about moving forward with a particular procedure: Do you really need it?
"Any face to face contact, especially extended, needs to be done with a mask on, ideally by both parties," says Karan. "Again, masks are not perfect so I would probably avoid hour-long massages right now as that is quite prolonged close contact in the same room — and the masseuse is probably having close contact with many other people throughout the day."
If you're going to get a manicure/pedicure, Kortepeter says you could try going to the salon at times of the day when it's less crowded. Or consider only getting one procedure at a time to minimize the length of time you're in contact with others.
Asked whether some salon services are riskier than others, Kortepeter says the danger increases based on the contact time and the number of people in the facility. These are ultimately risks you have to weigh for yourself, he says.
Is it a good idea to spray myself with disinfectant?
The answer here is — decisively — no. In fact, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration warned against it this week.
"Disinfectant is for surfaces, not for skin," says Kortepeter. "The main place that needs to be cleaned after being out and about is your hands, and you can do that simply by washing them. What you don't want to do is put potentially toxic substances on your skin — it can cause skin burns and injury."
Spraying yourself with disinfectant won't reduce your risk of infection, Kortepeter says. But it does carry the risk of causing harm to your skin and eyes.
"I would say, use that money to instead buy a mask," says Karan. "And wear it."