Drew Downing: Some Perspective on Coronavirus From a Preparedness Expert

corornavirus caseIt’s a disconcerting time. A lot of us feel at odds and powerless in the face of something we’ve never seen before.

But feeling that way is not the same as being helpless. We all have a part to play in stopping this novel coronavirus and protecting our communities as much as possible.

Coronavirus preparedness and prevention are critical. And even if you’re one of the few who was late to the game in terms of protecting yourself and others, know that what you do starting now can make a massive difference in helping us “flatten the curve” and save lives.

Disque Foundation’s own Drew Downing, Director of Outreach & Mission Fulfillment, has spent more than a decade in public health and disaster response, working with local, state, and federal agencies, including the Department of Homeland Security and the Orange County Health Care Agency.

He has helped multiple communities prepare for, respond to, and recover from a variety of disasters.

We recently asked him to share his advice to those of us trying to navigate this situation.

Do we have any historical reference for the current situation?

While epidemics like the Ebola outbreak were regional and geographically contained, pandemics are global in their magnitude and occur far less often than epidemics. In the U.S., we can find some similarities between the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak and the following:

Not unlike the current coronavirus preparedness tips, various forms of social distancing helped slow these diseases. For example, to reduce the risk of spreading smallpox, people routinely left a chair between themselves and a stranger in movie theaters.

But in the U.S., it’s been nearly three generations since we’ve seen a pandemic of this proportion. In 1917/18, swine flu, commonly known as “Spanish Flu”, killed over 600,000 people in the U.S. and many more around the world.

For reference, the U.S only had a total population of just over 100 million in 1917. 1918 is the only year that the U.S. population declined.

Even though we know that pandemics happen, it’s hard ever to be fully prepared for one. We never expect that one will happen in our lifetime. And it often catches people off-guard.

But if we’re willing to take simple steps, sometimes make sacrifices, and think beyond ourselves at a time like this, we can overcome this invisible enemy together.

Are soap and water really our best defense?

proper handwashingThere have been a lot of mixed messages coming from different corners. It’s confusing. But you know what’s not complicated or confusing? Washing your hands.

Yes, you’ve seen this a lot already. But let me put it into some perspective: A pandemic simulation from 2018 shows how washing your hands more could slow down an outbreak like the coronavirus. Here’s a full explanation of how that works from Business Insider.

Numerous studies in healthcare and daily life support this fact.

What is the proper hand washing technique?

Start by removing any jewelry. In fact, during this time, I’d recommend that you not wear any. That includes your wedding ring, which can harbor pathogens indefinitely if not adequately cleaned.

Rinse your hands under warm running water to dislodge any surface dirt and thoroughly moisten the skin. It doesn’t have to be scalding. If you can tolerate the heat, then so can coronavirus, so no need to hurt yourself.

Lather up with soap, covering both sides of your hands and up the forearm if you’re wearing short sleeves. Be sure to work the soap in between your fingers. This should take at least 20 seconds, although you might take more time a couple of times a day to get the nails really good with a nail brush or old toothbrush.

Turn off the water with your elbow or wrist. Dry your hands on a paper or bamboo towel. Pat your skin. Don’t rub it. That will lead to cracking, which will reduce your ability to tolerate future hand washings.

Air dryers are less sanitary because they suck in and spread and airborne pathogens. But they’re second best.

We have created a free webinar series on Youtube to train you on the proper glove removal and hand washing techniques.

How often should I be washing my hands to practice Coronavirus Preparedness?

Of course, you should keep washing your hands after toilet time. But I’d also recommend that you wash your hands anytime you return home after having touched anything outside your house or come in contact with a person who doesn’t live with you.

For example, If you go to the grocery store, wash your hands when you get back. Then go back and disinfect your doorknob, steering wheel, and car handle. Disinfect the outer packaging. Then rewash your hands.

In between the hand washing, teach yourself not to touch your face, especially if you’re out of your home where you might contact something. If you forget, please wash your face too, while being careful not to rub into the eyes, nose, or mouth. It’s not known for sure how long COVID-19 can live on surfaces, but some estimates say for days.

That’s why you want to wipe down surfaces with soap and water, ammonia or alcohol-based wipes.

Many people never realized how much they touch their face until now. Any advice on breaking the habit?

Bad habits are hard to break. But with all the focus on coronavirus preparedness, we’re all on high-alert. That means we’re more mindful. And mindfulness is necessary to break a subconscious habit.

Some people have suggested wearing coarse gloves for several hours a day. When you accidentally touch your face, it will feel uncomfortable. So you’ll create a mental and physical aversion to touching the face. That’s not only coronavirus preparedness now. It will reduce your risk of getting sick in the future.

Others may find pinching the arm or thumping it hard useful. I would suggest snapping a rubber band. But wearing a rubber band on your wrist right now is just one more safe- zone for the virus to hang out.

Cognitive-behavioral therapists would suggest that you replace the behavior with a more constructive one. And they would also tell you that thinking, “don’t touch your face,” over and over, will have the opposite effect. So try replacing that thought with something like, “I am always aware of what my hands are doing.”

How does social distancing slow a virus?

We’re all learning about social distancing now. A concept a lot of introverts out there are already familiar with!

Overnight, social distancing has become a part of our vocabulary. But like I said, it’s not a new concept. It is a tool we’ve used throughout history to battle epidemics. We continue to do it because it works.

Six feet away from each other when out in public, please. Social distancing is a big part of the reason China was able to lock down the spread of COVID-19 relatively quickly.

And it’s why now is NOT the time to be in public, even a little bit, even with just a few people. This South China Morning Post article provides some pretty impressive visuals and really puts the size of China’s efforts in perspective.

Many people think that social distancing is all about protecting yourself. And that’s part of it. But it’s important to realize that by keeping your distance, you’re also reducing the chances that you spread the virus to someone else. That’s important because you could have the virus and be contagious for up to 14 days before showing any symptoms.

But what if you’ve been social distancing for a couple of weeks now and aren’t sick. Can you go visit grandpa?

I know it’s tempting. But you should still avoid contact with others. That’s especially true if you’re considering being around people who are over 60 or have chronic health conditions like:

  • Lung disease
  • Diabetes
  • Heart disease
  • Immune disorders
  • Other inflammatory disorders

Speaking of COVID-19 vulnerable Americans, what can we do to support them?

No hugs right now. I know that’s hard on your grandma. It’s even harder on little kids who don’t understand. But we’ve got to stand strong together to beat this. The best thing for us right now is open, honest communication with vulnerable people and kids in a way they can understand.

If you do need to visit a vulnerable person right now to take them supplies, for example, talk to them beforehand as part of your coronavirus preparedness plan. Make sure they understand the steps you’re taking to keep them safer. And realize that hugging and touching is a force of habit, so hold each other accountable — from a distance, of course.

Take precautions. Wash your hands. Disinfect any groceries before taking them inside. Leave them on the porch, so you don’t have to go into their home if they’re able to take them from there.

In addition to becoming insulation between your vulnerable family members and the outside world, realize they may be lonely and scared. Talk to them on the phone. Yes. The phone. You can do this, Millennials. Or video chat and text when possible to check-in.

You might find you need moral support as well.

Any advice for those who are lonely and scared?

I’d say, take care of yourself mentally. If you have diagnosed mental health disorders like anxiety, depression, or mood disorders, you’re undoubtedly going through it right now. But everyone has a breaking point. And we all need to take steps to maintain our mental wellbeing.

That could be things like joining a Facebook support group, talking with a therapist through an online service, or practicing daily meditation.

As we discuss coronavirus preparedness, keep in mind that your immune system is one of the tools you have in your coronavirus preparedness toolkit. Keep it strong. To do that, find ways to manage your stress levels.

Learning about COVID-19 prevention is a great way to do that because it helps you feel more in control. You’re taking steps. That can give you some peace of mind. And even a little can help give your immune system a fighting chance.

Is there anything else healthwise we should be doing for Coronavirus Preparedness?

I’d say make sure you’re getting enough exercise. You can’t go to the gym right now. And you may be afraid (or unable) to go outside. But exercise is so crucial for immunity, mental health, and physical health.

A daily workout routine will do you some good. It will increase endorphins and reduce cortisol levels, so you feel less stressed.

The second thing is to sleep.

It may be disrupted right now. That’s an understatement!

But to whatever extent possible, try to get seven to nine hours per night.

Oh, and if you needed another reason to quit smoking or vaping, this is it. A lot of the people developing pneumonia and dying from COVID-19 have lung inflammation. It doesn’t matter how young you are. That cigarette might not just kill you in a few years if you get lung cancer. With COVID-19, it immediately increases the chances of complications during your recovery.

And even after the immediate threat is over, this new coronavirus won’t go away so easily. With most viruses, you build some natural immunity after contracting and recovering from the disease. However, with all novel viruses, there is a lack of concrete data on all the potential ramifications of COVID-19, including how much immunity someone has after recovering from it.

But the good news is that the lungs can recover. You can give up smoking/vaping, start eating healthier and improve your chances. That’s what Coronavirus Preparedness is all about.

What should someone do if a person in their home develops COVID-19 symptoms?

Most people in the U.S. who get COVID-19 will likely not get tested. And If your loved one just has a cold or the flu, you don’t want to expose them to coronavirus unnecessarily. So if your family member is relatively low risk, there is probably no reason to go for a test unless more testing becomes available. At this time, there is a testing shortage.

The patient should, however, defer to their doctor’s and local health officials guidance, since I’m not here to give you medical advice. I’m just here to help you with your coronavirus preparedness.

The CDC has clear guidelines on what to do if someone in your home is sick. I recommend that as part of your COVID-19 readiness, you plan ahead of time how you’ll apply the below guidance if someone gets sick.

  1. Isolate the person to a single room if possible. Ideally, it should be a room with a bathroom, so you may have to shift people around.
  2. Thoroughly disinfect your whole house, paying particular attention to anything they may have touched in the last week. Wear gloves and a mask if possible. Go through each room. Do the laundry. Wipe down everything in the refrigerator. Disinfect surfaces in the kitchen, bathroom, living room, everywhere.
  3. Don’t share household items.
  4. If they must come out of the isolation room, they should wear a mask (if available). If no mask, I’d recommend having them wrap a T-shirt around their mouth to reduce the potential for droplet spread. Not ideal. But it reduces the virus going airborne if they cough.
  5. Wash your hands immediately after touching anything they’ve touched like a dish. And avoid touching your own eyes, mouth, and nose before washing your hands.
  6. Disinfect surfaces the person comes in contact with outside the room frequently, if not immediately.
  7. Keep them hydrated. Water, sports drinks, ginger ale, etc. and leave food outside the door, whatever they can eat.
  8. Be on the lookout for signs of distressed breathing like inability to take a breath, chest pain and pressure, confusion, bluish lips or face. This person needs medical attention.

Any last Coronavirus readiness tips?

Fear breeds confusion and there’s a lot of fear right now. And it may be weighing on you. But having a plan for you and your family can help protect them and the community. It can also give you some peace of mind.

This is a trying time for everyone. But for those who can, it’s also an excellent time to get educated.

Some people have extra time on their hands right now. And you could be using that time to take health education courses for certification or just for the knowledge. Now’s a great time to create an epidemic survival checklist of things you need to learn and do.

Our partner SaveaLife.com offers free, online certification in:

  • CPR, AED and First Aid
  • Basic Life Support (BLS)
  • Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS)
  • Pediatric Advanced Life Support (PALS)
  • Bloodborne Pathogens (BBP)

Learning about these topics right now will give you the confidence you need to feel ready and able to protect yourself, your family, and community in a health emergency or epidemic.