Best way to protect yourself from coronavirus? Wash your hands

  • A man holds a baby while walking by the entrance of Zekai Tahir Burak Hospital where 17 passengers of a Turkish Airlines flight from Tehran, suspected of having coronavirus, were to be quarantined in Ankara, Turkey.

    A man holds a baby while walking by the entrance of Zekai Tahir Burak Hospital where 17 passengers of a Turkish Airlines flight from Tehran, suspected of having coronavirus, were to be quarantined in Ankara, Turkey. Associated Press

 
 
Posted2/29/2020 7:00 AM

Amid growing fears of a global pandemic, health officials are taking precautionary steps to limit the spread of coronavirus in the United States.

But local health experts say individuals don't have to take drastic measures to try to protect themselves. It's as simple as taking "everyday preventive actions," such as frequent hand-washing and staying home when you're sick, said Dr. Luis Manrique, an infectious disease physician with Northwestern Medicine.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Though individual cases of the novel COVID-19 have been reported in the U.S., including two in Illinois, the country has not yet experienced outbreaks like those occurring in parts of Asia and Europe. But Centers for Disease Control and Prevention leaders have warned that clusters of infection are likely to begin appearing in American communities.

The Illinois Department of Public Health has been working with health care providers, local public health officials and various other agencies to "coordinate a robust response and take every possible step we can to prepare," Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said in a statement.

Illinois "led the charge" by becoming the first state with the ability to test for coronavirus, she said. Steps also are being taken to educate the public, such as creating a statewide hotline, updating websites and social media pages and sending out informational notices.

"The risk here is still very low," said Apryll Elliott, assistant director for communicable disease with the Kane County Health Department. "But we are very cognizant and heightened in terms of our surveillance and monitoring to make sure we're keeping our communities safe."

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Travel

Health experts are warning people to avoid nonessential travel -- whether it be by plane, cruise ship or another mode of transportation -- to countries that have "sustained transmission" of coronavirus. So far, the destinations identified by the CDC and the U.S. Department of State include China, Italy, South Korea, Iran and Japan.

Of the 60 cases reported in the United States as of Thursday, more than 40 were connected to a cruise ship with passengers who were stricken with respiratory illnesses after it docked in Japan.

Those returning home from a cruise or an international destination should be mindful of symptoms such as a fever, cough or difficulty breathing within 14 days of travel, Manrique said.

Those who do become symptomatic should seek medical advice, he said. But call ahead before going to a doctor's office, urgent care center or emergency room so you and your doctors can follow proper protocol.

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

A woman wearing a sanitary mask looks at her phone in Milan, Italy.
A woman wearing a sanitary mask looks at her phone in Milan, Italy. - Associated Press
Supplies

Airports are swarming with travelers wearing face masks in hopes of protecting themselves from contracting the coronavirus. But the CDC indicates the masks are ineffective and unnecessary for people in good health.

Tightfitting N95 respirator masks are more successful in reducing exposure to airborne particles than regular surgical masks, which experts say don't do much to prevent transmission of the disease.

The higher-end masks, which can be difficult to use, are crucial for health care workers and people who take care of others in close settings, Manrique said. But some retailers are running low amid rising concerns of coronavirus outbreaks.

If you don't need to wear one, he says, save the supply for those who do.

"Most people don't know how to use face masks correctly," Manrique said. "A rush to buy masks could prevent the people who need them most -- health care providers -- from getting them."

Instead, stock up on plenty of soap and hand sanitizer that contains 60% to 95% alcohol.

Immune system

Limited data available for COVID-19 and other strains of the coronavirus have shown older adults could be at risk for more severe outcomes, Manrique said. Same goes for those with underlying chronic medical conditions, including immunocompromising conditions such as cancer, chemotherapy and steroid use.

Maintaining a proper diet, getting enough sleep, exercising and taking prescribed medications for chronic conditions are the most effective ways to strengthen immune systems, he said. Those healthy lifestyle choices are more productive in fighting viruses than some common falsehoods, such as using sesame oil and taking antibiotics, which work only on bacteria.

Some people think garlic will help prevent infection, Manrique added, but there's no evidence that it has any benefit other than containing some antimicrobial properties. And spraying yourself with alcohol or chlorine won't kill viruses already in your body, but it can be harmful to your clothes, eyes and mouth.

Viruses

In the United States, the flu remains far more prevalent than coronavirus at this point, though the two can present with similar symptoms, said Uche Onwuta, director of disease prevention for the Kane County Health Department.

In China, it appears some cases of COVID-19 have been transmitted by people who are asymptomatic, she added, though that has yet to be seen among Americans.

Unlike the flu, however, there are no vaccines available yet for the coronavirus. But the basic prevention methods are the same as any respiratory illness: wash your hands often, avoid people who are sick, cover your cough or sneeze, avoid touching your eyes and nose, stay home if you're sick and wipe down frequently touched surfaces.

"Hand-washing is the best intervention public health has ever come up with," Onwuta said. "It's still as good as it was 200 years ago."

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