ALLISON AUBREY, HOST:
This is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Allison Aubrey. I cover health and wellness. The coronavirus pandemic is causing so much uncertainty about everyday life. It's not easy to know what to do as the news keeps changing. LIFE KIT wants to bring you smart tips to keep you safe and informed. So in this episode, I sit down with All Things Considered host Ailsa Chang and answer some common questions about coronavirus. We'll cover what to do if you feel like you're getting sick, the best way to sanitize spaces and all the nuances of social distancing.
Quick note - this was recorded March 17, 2020. Because the news is moving fast, always check npr.org for the latest.
AILSA CHANG, BYLINE: I just want to start with this whole social distancing thing. This is the thing, the action that everyone from President Trump on down to local officials - that's what they are all urging all Americans to do right now.
AUBREY: That's right.
CHANG: And today, Dr. Deborah Birx, who's coordinating the White House response to coronavirus - she said this.
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DEBORAH BIRX: Every single generation has a role to play. We're asking our older generation to stay in their homes. We're asking the younger generation to stop going out in public places, to bars and restaurants and spreading asymptomatic virus onto countertops and knobs.
CHANG: All right. Well, we do have a lot of young people on our staff. And I'm very happy to say that they are all taking this very seriously, asking whether they should go even further. And one of them had this question. Is there any way to responsibly see friends and family right now? Or are we all just going to be alone for a while?
AUBREY: You know, social distancing does not mean absolute isolation, right? We still have to go to the grocery store. Right now, we're being told don't gather in groups of 10 or more. If you live alone, yeah, this isolation could be very difficult. And I don't think anyone is going to tell you you can't have one or two people over. The key is do what we know works to help prevent the spread of this, and that is the simple stuff you keep hearing. It is wash your hands. Stop touching your face. Clean your surfaces. And keep your distance. Look; it is possible for adults to gather - two or three - and stay 6 feet apart.
AUBREY: Much harder to do that with young children.
CHANG: Just project.
AUBREY: That's right. That's right. Look; it's easier for adults to stay several feet apart, harder for children.
CHANG: (Laughter) Right.
AUBREY: And then we should say use the great outdoors. It's pretty easy to take a walk or a hike and keep your distance, right? Take a bike ride.
CHANG: Yeah, I love that.
AUBREY: So, again, I mean, we have to balance this, right? We're trying to stop the spread. We're in a race against this virus. And all of this is so critically important right now. But we also have to stay sane. So I think these recommendations to get outdoors could be a very good workaround.
CHANG: I love that idea. OK, still, there are times we have to remain indoors. And we have a lot of colleagues working from home because their children's schools are closed. I know that you have children at home, Allison. Does social distancing mean no more play dates for a while now?
AUBREY: You know, I think to answer this question, it is really important for everyone to understand the role that children could be playing in spreading this virus. There's not perfect information right now, but the data coming from China tell us a lot. I mean, there's new research that shows in China, about 13% of the kids who were confirmed to have the coronavirus - so they were known to be infected - they had no symptoms at all. They were asymptomatic. Many, many others get the virus but have only mild symptoms.
So, look; we know kids get the virus. This virus is very contagious. And even though their cases may only be mild, they can spread it. So because we're all in this together - and parents are going to play a key role here - what I'm hearing from a lot of the pediatricians that I speak to is better off to cancel all the play dates. Here's Jenny Radesky. She's a pediatrician at the University of Michigan. She says, look; at her hospital, they are preparing for a possible surge of patients. They're ready. But they'll be able to do their job better if there are just fewer people who get sick.
JENNY RADESKY: My guidance right now to families is, as much as possible, do not have your kids in other people's houses. Do not have other people's kids in your house.
AUBREY: So this may seem draconian, but it really is the ask right now. And, of course, this is complicated because what if - right? - you have to go to work? What if you can't work at home? These are all...
AUBREY: ...Really delicate questions right now. And there aren't great solutions all the time.
CHANG: Well, OK. So some of our staff right now - they're living with roommates. Others, obviously, with family members of all ages. And people want to know if they're still having to go into work, maybe even having to travel for their job, what's the best way to sanitize once they get back home in order to avoid infecting everyone else at home? Like, do you self-quarantine inside your home even if you have roommates?
AUBREY: Well, you know, if you've got roommates and you've got shared surfaces, and if you've got somebody going out into the world and coming back, whether that's to get groceries or to go to the office, then they can bring something back with them. So the first thing - and this is something we've been told a million times during this - wash your hands.
When it comes to surfaces, yes, it's really important to disinfect them. And here's why. The main way that this virus spreads is via respiratory droplets. So that means I'm an infected person. I sneeze or cough. I sneeze out these little respiratory droplets that are laden with virus. That lands on you, gets into your eyes, nose or mouth. And then you can be infected. But there is another way that this can spread, too. If my sneezing and coughing, all of those virus-laden droplets ends up on a surface that we both touch, that's another possible way of transmission.
So you can actually do a lot to, you know, sanitize your own home. You need to wipe down with wipes. If you don't have wipes, it's pretty easy to make your own cleaning solution. You take a little bleach. There are specific recommendations on the CDC website. But, yes, wipe down those surfaces. Wipe down your phone, which you could think of as your third hand. Right now, our phone...
AUBREY: ...Goes everywhere with us, right? And just be mindful of that.
CHANG: So this question has popped up in a lot of people's minds because people are already getting antsy and restless staying at home and watching tons and tons of movies. How long does all this social distancing last to accomplish its goals?
AUBREY: You know, I mean, the short answer is every expert I am speaking to is saying, I wish we knew.
AUBREY: We just don't have a perfect answer. When the CDC announced the guidance to cancel or postpone all events where 50 or more people would gather, they indicated this would be for the next eight weeks. So that's until about mid-May.
But I would also say that the message coming from the White House and from many public health officials is that the next 14 days are really, really critical. And that is because there is an assumption that if everybody does the right thing right now, we can start to slow the spread. So maybe think about it in baby steps. I mean, my mother always told me inch by inch, life's - yard by yard, life is hard.
AUBREY: If we start thinking about, oh, my God, what if we're still social distancing two months from now, we really will go insane. So focus on hunkering down right now for the next 14 days. And then we'll take it from there.
CHANG: Fourteen days, everybody. OK, so that was all about social distancing. But I still have a lot of questions about how to just get on with everyday life, including just how to eat. So several colleagues asked, is it OK to go to the grocery store? Bars and restaurants are closed in a lot of places. Is it OK to get takeout? And what about food delivery services? I mean, speaking for myself, I've been ordering a ton of lunch and dinner deliveries both at work and at home. Is that even a good idea?
AUBREY: You know, I think it's important to point out that when people are told not to go to bars and restaurants, this is to enforce social distancing, right?
AUBREY: It's not because food is a threat here. You're not going to get the coronavirus from eating food. I mean, this is a respiratory infection. It's not going to start in the digestive tract. So I think the main thing to think about is just to think about these personal interactions when you're getting food delivered, right? I mean, the concern would be more about the delivery itself - the box or the plastic container. Is the person who's delivering that food - are they practicing good hand-washing?
AUBREY: Are they potentially infected? You know, we don't want to make people paranoid. But when you bring food into your house, very good idea to then wash your hands again. And any other time, this would be considered paranoid, but we do know that, you know, contaminated surfaces could play a role here. And we're all being asked to pull out all the stops and be as cautious as possible. So under these conditions, you know, think about it that way.
CHANG: OK. Let's move on to what happens when you feel like you might be getting sick.
CHANG: So one colleague asked, what are you supposed to do if you start having, say, cold or flu symptoms? At what point can you ask for a test?
AUBREY: Sure. The first thing you need to do is call your health care provider.
AUBREY: That's right.
CHANG: Don't go in.
AUBREY: Don't just show up.
AUBREY: Right? Because the last thing we need is for, you know, urgent care or emergency rooms to be overrun with people who don't need to be there. Now, not everyone with a slight fever or a cough is going to be tested at this moment. And though we're hearing a lot about how quickly testing is ramping up, the problem is that we don't have the capacity to test everybody right now. Priority at this moment is going to health care providers, first responders as well as older people with symptoms or underlying medical conditions.
So one thing I would say is that the White House has just made an announcement that Medicare is trying to expand access to telehealth options, so getting access to your doctor via a webcam. And they're trying to do this for no extra cost. Think about this. There's millions of elderly people in Medicare. So these are millions of people who could be concerned. Instead of going into the doctor's office, where they could expose others...
AUBREY: ...To this virus if they had it, I mean, there's - instead of going to a doctor's office, where they could expose others to this virus, the idea is you connect with a doctor via webcam. And doctors are doing online evaluations. They can actually do a lot. They can look at your respiration rate. And the hope is that people will start using telehealth.
CHANG: OK. So while people stay at home and not flood doctors' offices when they think they're experiencing symptoms, I mean, one question is, what about allergies? It's the beginning of allergy season. How can you even tell the difference between a normal allergy and COVID-19?
AUBREY: Sure. I spoke to an allergist, Michael Blaiss of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology. And he says the first thing to note here is fever.
MICHAEL BLAISS: Allergies do not cause fever. Even though we use the term hay fever, that's a misnomer.
CHANG: Good point.
AUBREY: So fever is a symptom of COVID-19, not a symptom of seasonal allergies. Now, with all of the tree pollen starting to develop, a lot of people around the country will have a runny nose. They'll be sneezing. Blaiss says these are very typical symptoms of seasonal allergies but not typical of symptoms of coronavirus. One more important distinction - cough is usually not a symptom of seasonal allergies, but it is one of the main symptoms of COVID-19.
CHANG: One thing that we've been hearing over and over again is that people with underlying health conditions are at the greatest risk of contracting COVID-19. So one of our colleagues wanted to know what preexisting conditions are the most dangerous to have if you get the coronavirus?
AUBREY: The evidence so far shows that people with chronic heart disease, diabetes, lung disease, such as COPD, people who have compromised immune systems due to conditions such as cancer. In China, we know that people who smoke were hit hard by this, especially older men who were smokers.
Think about it this way. This is a general rule of thumb. The same medical conditions and habits that typically put people at greater risk of complications from seasonal flu would also put you at greater risk during this epidemic.
CHANG: What about riding public transportation - the subway, the bus? I know that I've been doing a lot of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft. What do you say about that?
AUBREY: Well, Uber has suspended shared rides, and I guess it depends on where you are, right? There are areas of the country where there's known, you know, community-to-community spread.
I think the bus and the train can be an important means of transportation for people who still do need to get to work, right? It's better to stay home or drive if you can. But when you're on public transit, just be aware of all the shared surfaces - the handrails, et cetera - and keep your distance. I mean, the last time I rode the metro, very, very, very few people were on it, so it is easier to stay 6 feet apart, even when you're on a train or a bus.
CHANG: So much stuff to think about.
AUBREY: Yeah, I know.
CHANG: Do you have any last words of advice for our listeners as we enter this strange time of a socially distant lifestyle?
AUBREY: You know, I wish I had more to say here. Life as we know it has ground to a halt, but we're still being asked to work and take care of our children. And it's very uncharted territory for all of us. Nobody has lived through this before, right? And so we owe it to each other to be respectful and do the right things. I mean, everyone in this country plays a role in reducing the spread of this. And it means just doing basic things, right? It means washing your hands.
AUBREY: Don't touch your face. Clean your surfaces. Hunker down. Keep your distance. And we all kind of have to take this seriously. It won't last forever. The great thing about the time we live in is we're very connected, right? So we can FaceTime. And we're going to have virtual happy hours in our neighborhood. And, you know, people have to be creative. Being physically isolated doesn't mean being emotionally isolated.
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AUBREY: So here are some of your key takeaways. Practice social distancing. Stay home if you can in the next two weeks. Just focus on the next two weeks for now. Parents, cancel the play dates. Try to sanitize your surfaces with disinfecting wipes, and your phone, too.
Social distancing does not necessarily mean absolute isolation. If you have a few people over, wash your hands. Clean the surfaces. Keep a distance. And keep the gathering to no more than 10 people. And what about this? Take the meeting outside. Take a hike.
If you're getting groceries or food delivered, make sure to wash your hands once you bring the food inside. And tip that delivery person if you can.
One way to embrace this mantra of flatten the curve is don't go to the doctor. If you're sick, call. You need to stay home because we don't want people flooding doctors' offices, urgent care or ERs. In fact, think about using telehealth.
When it comes to distinguishing seasonal allergies from COVID-19, fever is a key symptom of COVID-19 but not with seasonal allergies.
If you're using public transportation, keep your distance.
And just remember, as hard as it is when everybody's cooped up and off their schedules, just try to be good to each other. Look at this as an opportunity to have quality time.
NPR's LIFE KIT is working to bring you practical tips about the coronavirus. We've also got episodes about how to work from home and screen time strategies for your kids if they're off school. You can find those at npr.org/lifekit. And feel free to drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org if you've got a question about getting through this virus or a tip of your own.
This episode was produced by Sylvie Douglis. Meghan Keane is the managing producer. Beth Donovan is the senior editor. I'm Allison Aubrey. Thanks for listening.
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