“Just like with the flu, good hygiene habits, proper handwashing and sneezing and coughing etiquette, are important to help reduce the spread of illness.” ~ Robin Gurwitch, Duke University School of Medicine

“I think this virus is probably with us beyond this season, beyond this year, and I think eventually the virus will find a foothold and we’ll get community based transmission and you can start to think about it like seasonal flu. The only difference is we don’t understand this virus.” ~ Dr. Robert Redfield. Director, CDC, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention – Feb. 13, 2020

“Infectious diseases don’t respect political announcements or geographic borders. I think we will see a spread here in the United States. It will test our resolve.” ~ Dr. Mark Rupp, Professor, Department of Internal Medicine;
Chief, Division of Infectious Diseases – University of Nebraska Medical Center 
“Cleanness of body was ever deemed to proceed from a due reverence to God.” ~ Sir Frances Bacon (1561-1626) – English philosopher and statesman credited with developing the scientific method.

One of the responsibilities of the department I headed in my corporate job was disaster recovery coordination. My company already had a strong recovery program, so when the threat of a pandemic hit twice within a half dozen years — SARS and H1N1, in 2002-2003 and 2009-2010, respectively — we added a campaign that encouraged personal hygiene.

And now the workplace is again faced with a new global health threat: COVID-19, a specific strain of Coronavirus, and disaster recovery plans — AKA business continuity contingency plans — across the nation are once again kicking in.

What We Know So Far 

The facts about COVID to date are:

  • Symptoms are pneumonia-like, prompting a fever, coughing and shortness of breath. They can be mild to severe. The most current death rate issued by the World Health Organization (WHO) is 3.4%. To put that in perspective, the death rate of the seasonal flu in the U.S. is 0.1%. Of course, both numbers can be fluid. Overall, COVID-19 has proved to be more contagious and more dangerous to some than this year’s seasonal flu.
  • It’s widespread around the world and currently spreading throughout the U.S.
    Older people and those with compromised immune systems or who have underlying medical conditions seem to be most at risk. But we are just beginning to learn about COVID-19 so everyone should take precautions.
  • Those afflicted can infect others even if they experience or exhibit no symptoms.
    COVID-19 reportedly is passed through coughing and sneezing close to people, passing fecal matter via unwashed hands, shaking hands and touching soiled surfaces (doorknobs, toilet seats, light switches, countertops, etc.) and then touching our faces. The virus is believed to survive on a surface up to 24 hours.
  • The CDC says it has new test kits that it will be dispensing to healthcare facilities. Reportedly, those who are uninsured should not have to pay for a test if one is deemed medically necessary.
  • A vaccine will take awhile. After developing a vaccine it must undergo testing before it can be assessed and approved by the FDA and made available in the U.S. to the general public. Experts estimate a vaccine might be ready to roll out in a year to year-and-a-half. When a vaccine does become available it should be at no cost under the Affordable Care Act (Obamacare).
  • As we are also in the midst of regular flu season, we have additional opportunities of becoming ill, which will increase the impact on business, schools, healthcare facilities, the economy and more. And it makes the diagnoses of COVID-19 even more challenging. The best plan is to get a flu shot and contact your health care professional if you experience any symptoms, especially if you believe you have been exposed to COVID-19. Pregnant women should not hesitate to consult with their healthcare professionals. No one should wait until a trip to the ER becomes necessary. It’s best to call your doctor first, but if the ER is your only option, call ahead so the staff can arrange for an isolation room if necessary.

The bottom line: prevention is key.

Everyday Hygiene Etiquette

Washing hands has always been at the top of the list as the single most effective defense against the spread of germs that transmit the aforementioned viruses as well as seasonal flu and colds and other transmittable viruses and diseases that periodically plague us, e.g., MRSA, Hepatitis A-E, Tuberculosise-coli, Norovirus, and conjunctivitis.  Thus, I believed then and I believe now that if good personal hygiene were part of everyday business etiquette our workplaces would be better prepared when these new health threats occur. Such etiquette includes common personal hygiene habits (i.e., the use of soap and water, shampoo, deodorant, toothpaste, mouthwash, dry cleaning, laundry detergent and cleaning wipes to clean off shoes, handbags/backpacks and briefcases) that not only make interactions with others pleasant and productive, but they can reduce employee sick time and overall stress and in some cases actually save lives.

In addition to washing our hands frequently, we are also advised that to prevent germs from entering our eyes, nose and mouth we should not touch our faces — except, of course, to wash, shave and apply medications, moisturizers and makeup. But many of us touch our faces multiple times each day without even realizing it, which is all the more important that we keep our hands washed and clean.

But while hand-washing is imperative to health and good manners, according to a 2018 report by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), only 31% of men and 65% of women wash their hands after using the restroom!

It’s perplexing that so many think it’s okay not to wash their hands after using the restroom, sneezing or coughing into their hands or otherwise soiling them! And for those who wisely do wash their hands, it’s important to also dry them properly, preferably with a paper towel instead of those unsanitary electric hand dryers.

Watch this entertaining video as an expert from the Mayo Clinic teaches Jimmy Kimmel and Guillermo how to wash their hands properly: Jimmy and Guillermo Learn To Wash Their Hands. (Warning: for adults only; here is a more appropriate one for the kids: Germ Smart Kids).

While washing hands is more effective than using a hand sanitizer, it’s also important to use the latter, which should contain at least 60% isopropyl or ethyl alcohol when you cannot wash your hands. You can also add some hand sanitizer for extra protection after washing your hands.

Here are guidelines for children and hand sanitizers, as well: American Academy of Pediatrics. There are both alcohol-free and alcohol-based sanitizers with moisturizers available.  But the word is, the more alcohol in the sanitizer the more protection you get. To avoid drying out your hands you can apply a good moisturizer and wear a pair of cosmetic gloves at bedtime.

Sneezing and Coughing

To field those sneezes and coughs, carry disposable tissues with you and throw them in the trash immediately. For those times when you are not near a trash receptacle, it’s helpful to carry disposable snack or sandwich bags in which to place used tissues. And those lovely cloth hankies your grandma used? Better to frame them as you would vintage art.

If you do get caught without a tissue, sneeze or cough into the crook of your elbow, and be sure to clean any clothing you soiled. Unfortunately, the “green” ways of laundering and dry-cleaning are apparently not as good at killing germs as the old-fashioned, toxic ways. But your home dryer usually does the trick — at high heat rather than the energy-efficient setting. Sometimes there are trade-offs in order to balance needs.

Six Degrees — Or Feet — of Separation 

Our use of space — or proxemics — has long been a business etiquette practice, not just to avoid germs but to provide a comfort level to others. No one wants someone to be so close that they get a crick in their neck looking up, have their drink jostled onto their clothing or have someone sit too close to them at meetings around the conference table.
The rule of thumb for social or business space is four to 12 feet, depending on the situation. The six-foot rule is the appropriate distance to stand from those who are coughing or sneezing to avoid being sprayed with those little droplets that come from the mouth and nose. If someone does sneeze or cough near you, wash your face and hands ASAP with a hand or facial cleansing towelette.

Face Masks

Some people believe that wearing face-masks protects them and others. But according to  Dr. Michael Osterholm, “Using surgical masks, whether in public or being near a COVID-19 case, likely offers little protection against virus transmission…Only the use of an N-95 respirator, the tight-fitting face protection mask, can effectively prevent the COVID-19 virus from getting into your respiratory tract.” Daily Beast, February 20, 2020. So if you feel you must wear a mask, wear the right one. Health professionals are saying that it is more important that healthcare professionals rather than civilians wear them, however, especially as a shortage is expected.

Our Long History Of Resisting Proper Hygiene

The lack of practicing proper hygiene has caused major public health problems for centuries. A legendary story of the mid-19th centuryrecounts how otherwise healthy pregnant women and their babies were dying in an Austrian hospital because the same doctors that delivered their newborns also performed autopsies — and did not bother to wash their hands or clean their instruments. A physician who worked there, Dr. Ignaz Philipp Semmelweis, discovered the connection between cleanliness and preventing illness and disease and for awhile this was practiced and saved lives. However, his colleagues and other medical practitioners revolted against the idea of cleanliness and resented the doctor’s interference and insistence. So they declared our hero incompetent and committed him to an asylum. (Just who were the insane ones, we might ask.) Dr. Semmelweis’s cleanliness discovery, practice and legacy were vindicated when Dr. Louis Pasteur discovered the connection between germs and disease, circa 1865.

But we are no longer in the 19th century! And yet a 21st century study conducted by the National Institutes of Health revealed that only 40% of healthcare workers and 32 percent of doctors complied with “hand hygiene” guidelines in hospitals! Think about that when you go for your next medical examination! Here we are in 2020 and it appears that the majority of humankind still doesn’t perform the simple task of washing their hands to prevent the spread of germs that cause illness and death.

So…Should We Continue To Shake Hands?

Shaking hands is the main staple in the West that introduces us to and connects us with people in both professional and social situations. We know how important proper handshakes are to gaining and maintaining clients, winning new and keeping old business and in general demonstrating our sophistication and polishing our images. But in light of this new health threat, the question whether to continue shaking hands has again come up.

One of my first posts was “The Perfect Handshake.” But the Ebola crisis prompted me to write “Greeting Etiquette in the Age of Ebola,” which highlights alternatives to hand-shaking. Many of us will opt to continue handshaking and employ hand sanitizer to protect ourselves and others. Others will choose to stop handshaking until our current pandemic ends. But handshaking is ingrained, so keep that hand sanitizer handy for

Taking Charge

During previous pandemics, both the Bush and Obama Administrations consulted with global health organizations and their own experts, held regular briefings and kept everyone informed. In the current situation, those in charge at medical facilities, companies, schools, colleges and universities, manufacturing plants, food facilities and the like will depend on the Trump Administration’s  cooperation and coordination with health authorities to be able to contain COVID-19.

Our job is to not allow panic to overtake clear thinking and keep ourselves informed and current through media reports, updates from WHO, our employers and local governments. While we look to power structures for information and guidance, we have our own power to take control. It’s in our hands, so to speak.

Until next time,


Join me next week as I address one of the most important components that should be part of every corporate disaster recovery plan.


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