“We cannot see that there is any undue violation of personal liberty in the sanitary authority acting for the whole community, requiring to be informed of the existence of diseases dangerous to others. A man’s liberty is not to involve risk to others. A man with smallpox has the natural liberty to travel in a cab or an omnibus; but society has a right that overrides his natural liberty, and says he shall not.” ~ Essay, The Lancet, 1883, as quoted in The Atlantic, May 19, 2020
“…masks are important…physical distancing is the most important…but practically, when you’re living your life and trying to open up the country you are going to come into contact with people and for that reason we know that masks are really important and we should be using them – everyone.” ~ Dr. Anthony Fauci, July 2020
“Wearing a mask for me is living the golden rule: ‘Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.” ~ Oprah Winfrey
Welcome back to my series on Pandemic Lessons Learned. If you missed Part One, you may read it here: Series ~ Pandemic Lessons Learned – Part One: Vaccines, Testing & Treatments.
In December 2019, the novel coronavirus that was discovered in Wuhan, China, and came to be known as COVID-19 (acronym for “coronavirus disease 2019”), resulted in a pandemic. The virus first spread throughout Asia and Europe, and then North America, with the first U.S. case reported in Washington State on January 21, 2020. We were told that best practices to slow or prevent the spread of the pandemic while governments and the scientific community worked on a vaccine included: (1) wearing some sort of facial covering (throughout 2020, the healthcare community needed the optimal N95 masks, which were in alarming short supply), (2) washing hands frequently and correctly and using hand-sanitizer, (3) withdrawing to six feet apart in social situations, (4) isolating, and (5) quarantining. The acronym I like to use for remembering these brilliant lifesaving best practices: WWW-IQ.
Evidence abounds, statistically and anecdotally, that face masks have overwhelmingly prevented illness, not only COVID-19 and its variants, but many other contagious diseases — even if you are the only one wearing a mask. For that reason, I believe masks are here to stay. They certainly are in my household. The pandemic is expected to end and become endemic; but I believe that masks will become a permanent part of our wardrobes, at least during peak cold and flu seasons.
Statistically, many studies have been conducted that show how effective mask-wearing has reduced COVID-19 infections, depending on locations and situations. In some cases, mask-wearing has accounted for more than a 70 percent reduction in infections.
Anecdotally, my story is that since March 2020, when I began masking, hand-sanitizing, social distancing and quarantining when I thought I might have been exposed, not only have I avoided COVID-19 to date (knock on wood!), but I have not had a single cold or case of the flu in two years! Previously, nearly every year I caught a cold or two and one case of the flu — despite faithfully getting my annual flu shot. I have heard about this pandemic phenomenon from others, as well.
We recall that at the beginning of the pandemic, to reserve N95 masks for healthcare workers, we were told to wear any sort of face covering to protect ourselves from the COVID-19 droplets. We learned that those droplets could reach us if we are standing less than six feet (or two arm lengths) from infected people who are not just coughing or sneezing, but who are simply speaking, shouting or laughing, as people routinely do. That advice sparked a cottage industry of fashion masks (Etsy, Amazon, etc.); such masks have become widely available at various price points, and make mask-wearing a tad less inconvenient and a bit more fun.
Then, hospitals, doctors’ offices and other healthcare facilities began requiring that all patients and other lay people must wear surgical masks, which consumers could purchase online or at a pharmacy, big box or medical supply store. The U.S. currently is advising that the American-standard N95 is the most effective mask; but the Chinese-standard KN95 and South Korean-standard KF94 are apparently reasonable alternatives.
My husband and I currently are double-masking; under our fashion masks we wear either an N95, KN95 or surgical mask (depending on the circumstances). Like many others, we have amassed quite a wardrobe of fashion masks to wear with every outfit and every occasion. Again, we plan to wear them, as appropriate, in perpetuity!
But from the beginning, U.S. leadership either played down mask-wearing or outright mocked it, thereby turning this lifesaving tool into a political football and likely causing an unnecessary increase in illness and death. And, yet, while the non-mask-wearing minority has been very loud, a poll taken in October 2020 revealed that the vast majority of Americans were quietly taking mask-wearing seriously. With Americans increasingly embracing mask-wearing and with Europe’s tough mask mandates, it just might be that East has met West in understanding what Asian countries have long known: masks save lives and help societies function better.
Hand-Washing / Hand-Sanitizing
Prior to the pandemic, the simple act of shaking hands could make a person seriously ill. Ditto getting a breakfast muffin or sandwich at lunchtime in the office cafeteria, enjoying dinner at an upscale restaurant or buying produce at the local green grocer. Why? Because most people — not just in the U.S. but worldwide — have not performed the simple but healthful and in some cases life-saving act of washing their hands after using the toilet or engaging in other activities that produce dangerous bacteria on their hands! Then those non-hand-washing folks proceed to shake hands with others and possibly pass on sanitary waste material. Lovely. Perhaps that cold, flu or “stomach bug” that an unsuspecting person came down with was caused because someone touched their hands or food with unwashed and contaminated hands. It’s crucial that we all wash our hands frequently under normal circumstances, but especially during this pandemic!
And here’s another big health and etiquette no-no in which too many people indulge, and that is coughing and sneezing into their hands. As coughs and sneezes usually come on fast, my advice is always to have a handkerchief or facial tissues handy. If you are seated at a dining table or in a meeting, and you don’t have time to grab that hanky or a tissue, try not to use your napkin or your hands. Instead, cover your mouth if you cough and turn your head to sneeze into your left shoulder while cupping a hand over your nose and mouth to shield the sneeze from others (other times you may sneeze into your elbow). Then, excuse yourself as unobtrusively as possible and step away to the restroom to finish coughing, sneezing or blowing your nose. And, of course, wash your hands thoroughly before returning to your dinner or meeting.
As the pandemic moved the importance of hygiene to the forefront of people’s consciousness, more hands reportedly have been washed, but there is also evidence of slippage in this positive habit. Washing our hands often and correctly is certainly an important lesson to be learned. So, here are two important reminders: Proper Hand Washing and Sneezing and Coughing Etiquette.
Seriously, if our kids and grandkids can learn these proper etiquette and life-saving lessons, we adults surely can!
Keeping a distance socially has always been a sign of good manners. The rule of thumb traditionally has been, when possible, to stand or sit three feet apart (one arm’s length) from others, out of respect and for their comfort. It is impolite to stand or sit too close to another person in normal situations. In the wake of COVID-19, however, the best practice is to physically distance — or withdraw to — six feet apart (two arm lengths) from others out of consideration for their health as well as your own safety.
Social distancing during the pandemic has also entailed withdrawing from crowds, whether in stores, social gatherings, theatres or workplaces. Distancing has also involved sheltering/isolating/quarantining at home, home schooling and working from home. Many restrictions have been relaxed since the vaccines, but Delta and Omicron have played havoc with the recovery, and many schools and businesses have again sent their students and employees home. We will likely have this policy and guidance back-and-forth for a while until more people become vaccinated. Meanwhile, it’s best to avoid crowds.
Of course, no one should hesitate to speak up, kindly but firmly, if they find themselves in uncomfortable or ill-advised circumstances. Simply point out your preferences with a smile and such phrases as:
- Please excuse me, I’m trying to distance.
- Hello, I’m next in line. (If someone accidentally cuts in line when you are standing 6 ft. behind the person in front of you!)
- Please go ahead; I’ll get the next (name the conveyance).
- I need a bit more space, please.
- I prefer that you wear your mask, please.
Offer sincere thanks to those who comply. And don’t delay in removing yourself from any situation that you deem to be unsafe. If these approaches fail to make you feel safe, it’s fine to ruffle feathers in favor of your health and security and those of your family and any others who are with you. In my view, physical safety comes first.
Isolating and Quarantining
Social distancing also includes the updated guidelines for isolating and quarantining.
Isolation is required following a confirmed COVID-19 infection. You should isolate yourself from all others — even within your own family — when you test positive for COVID-19.
The original CDC recommendation was to isolate until you had two negative test results before leaving isolation to resume normal activities. Because of the shortage of test kits available for a time in 2020, the alternative recommendation was to isolate for 10 days after your symptoms began and 24 hours after your fever broke before leaving isolation. If you tested positive but were asymptomatic, the recommendation was to isolate for 10 days from the testing date.
But after finding that most people transmit the virus in the first two days prior to the appearance of symptoms, and then two-three days afterward, the guidelines have been updated for those vaccinated and boosted within the appropriate timeframes to:
- Five days of isolation
- After five days, if you are asymptomatic or without fever for 24 hours you may stop isolation; if you continue to have a fever of 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit (38 degrees Celsius) or higher, continue to isolate until your fever is gone for 24 hours.
- Follow isolation with five additional days of wearing the recommended masks (N95 or KN95) when around others to minimize the risk of infecting anyone.
The original CDC recommendation was to quarantine for 14 days when you either knew or believed you were exposed to someone who was infected with COVID-19. That period could be reduced to seven days if you tested negative, or to 10 days without testing if you have no symptoms after daily monitoring for that period. During that time, you should be wearing a mask when around others in the household. For the same reasons the CDC updated its guidelines for isolation, the guidelines for quarantine have been updated:
- If you have been vaccinated with Pfizer or Moderna within the past six months or J&J within the past two months or have been boosted, wear a proper mask around others for 10 days and get tested after five days, if possible.
- If you have been vaccinated but not boosted, or are unvaccinated, you should quarantine at home for five days; after the five days you may leave your house but wear a proper mask around others for five additional days. If you develop symptoms, you must follow the guidelines for isolating.
Note: It is recommended that when monitoring your temperature you should take it twice a day at the same times — such as in the morning and late afternoon or evening, as temperatures can fluctuate throughout the day. Here is a handy worksheet for monitoring symptoms. Use a good thermometer and take your temperature properly, as well as your children’s. We use a convenient head/ear thermometer. In addition, we use a pulse oximeter to check our blood oxygen levels. Both the thermometer and oximeter should be used simply as indicators together with your other symptoms in order to give you and your doctor as much information as possible about your condition.
Not everyone agrees with the CDC’s new guidelines, such as the renowned American Medical Association, which believes that they will further spread the virus. On the other hand, the CDC is striving for a balance between containing the virus and economic recovery. However, each of us can choose to follow the original guidelines, which are more cautious, if we are in a position to do so. After all, one of the lessons we have learned is that personal responsibility is a key element to ending the pandemic.
That wraps up Part Two of my series. Please feel free to comment with your opinions and experiences. Part Three will be coming soon.
Until next time,
Related past posts: