Every day brings more scary headlines about the coronavirus. Along with all the other bad news screaming for our attention every day, it sometimes feels like we’re all on the Titanic, heading inexorably toward that fateful iceberg.
But here’s the good news: One of the best ways to avoid getting COVID-19 is also the most simple and easily accessible: washing your hands after coming in contact with public spaces. Think about ATMs, touch screens at check-out counters, doorknobs, subway hand-straps, gas pumps—you get the idea.
I’m aware of this all the time because I have to be so careful about picking up an infection in one of my digital ulcers. While hand washing is the best option (20 seconds, about as long as it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice), I rely on hand sanitizer because I can’t get my bandages wet, and the sanitizer dries quickly. Use sanitizer that’s at least 60 percent alcohol and rub until it’s gone.
Likewise, the best way to avoid spreading the coronavirus—or any other contagious illness—is to practice good hand hygiene out of respect for others. That, and staying home when you’re sick.
Hand washing has been a cultural and religious ritual for millennia. But only since the mid-19th century has good hand hygiene been linked to better health in Western civilization. A Hungarian doctor, Ignaz Semmelweis, is credited with first discovering the connection in 1846 when he noticed that women giving birth in the doctor/student-run maternity ward at Vienna General Hospital had a much higher mortality rate than those in the adjacent midwife-run maternity ward.
Semmelweis determined that the doctors and medical students typically made rounds in the maternity ward right after doing autopsies. Midwives, of course, did not perform autopsies. So he figured that some kind of “cadaverous particles” were being transmitted to the pregnant women. His solution was to require all doctors and medical students to wash their hands with chlorine before treating his patients in the maternity ward—and the mortality rate dropped significantly.
Less than a decade later, Florence Nightingale championed hand washing in an Italian hospital during the Crimean War and also successfully reduced the rate of infections.
While Semmelweis and Nightingale were primarily fighting the spread of bacterial infections, hand washing works for preventing the spread of viruses, too. We’re all touching our faces more than we realize. COVID-19 spreads through droplets of fluid, from face to hand to surface to hand to face. All the more reason to wash or sanitize hands after being out in public.
It will be weeks and months before we fully understand the nature and true risks of this new disease. The number of people infected is certain to increase, both because of the exponential transmission rate and the fact that more people are being tested and detected. There is real reason for concern and vigilance. We need accurate facts, reliable reporting, and scientific leadership, not conspiracy theories and blame games.
In another time of high public anxiety, during the Great Depression in 1933, newly-elected President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reassured the nation with these famous words: “[L]et me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is fear itself—nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”
Those are words worth remembering and repeating right now. That, and go wash your hands.
Image: Daniel Levis Pelusi