Stay-at-home orders in response to the coronavirus pandemic helped to slow down the spread of the disease, but also disrupted a lot of daily life. While everyone is eager to get back to “normal,” public health experts advise preventive measures are still needed to continue to reduce Covid-19 transmission. To help you navigate a reopening America, we consulted public health experts to answer common questions.
Should I just never leave my house?
Not at all. Reopening doesn’t have to be a tradeoff between a total lockdown to protect public health or unleashing the virus on society to boost the economy, says Crystal Watson, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and co-author of a reopening guide for governors. There is a “middle ground,” she says, of “trying to be protective of public health, but allowing our economy to get back to work.” Preventive measures, such as social distancing, wearing masks, and handwashing still remain some of the most important tools to slow the spread of Covid-19.
I feel fine, so why do I have to keep taking precautions?
It’s important to take precautions because there has been widespread transmission of Covid-19 from people who may not know they have the virus but still spread it to others. By taking preventive measures, you are helping to reduce transmission of the virus both for your own personal health and the greater community. “There’s tremendous power in prevention, but it’s often not respected. Because when prevention works, absolutely nothing happens and things are very boring,” says Dr. Howard Koh, professor at the Harvard T. H. Chan School of Public Health and the former assistant secretary for health in the Obama administration.
Do I really need to keep social distancing?
Yes. Social distancing is one of the most effective interventions to reduce transmission of the virus. In the beginning, every person infected with coronavirus was infecting, on average, another two to three people. This led to the exponential growth in cases, Watson says, and adds that “what we want to do is try to bring that number below one.” When people are spread farther apart, it is harder to transmit the airborne droplets that carry the virus from person-to-person.
Do I need to wear a mask?
When you’re going to be in close proximity to other people, yes. A cloth mask helps protect other people “who might be on the receiving end of droplets that are infected,” says Koh. This is another instance of a preventive measure that helps reduce asymptomatic transmission. If people who are infected with Covid-19 wear a mask, it helps block how far the airborne droplets can spread.
Can I touch my face?
You should wash your hands or use hand sanitizer before touching your face. “If you touch a contaminated surface, it’s not like this thing is going to jump off the surface into your face,” says Dr. Mark Kortepeter, professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and author of Inside the Hot Zone. “You’re the one who actually is directly implanting that organism from the surface using your hands to your eyes, nose or mouth.”
How many people can I hang out with at one time?
It depends, but, in general, the smaller the group, the better for everyone. There are varying federal and state guidance when it comes to social gatherings. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends a 10-person limit in the first phase of reopening, while some states say there doesn’t need to be a limit on gatherings if people are social distancing. There is no “hard and fast” number, says Watson, but large groups should definitely be avoided. “The bigger the gathering, the more risk there is,” she says.
Who is most at risk?
Being over the age of 65 and having certain diseases, such as diabetes, obesity and asthma, put people at increased risk for more severe cases of Covid-19, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Where you live can also be an important factor, as people in nursing homes and other long-term care facilities, prisons and homeless shelters are also at increased risk. Data also show that communities of color can be disproportionately affected by higher rates of illness. That said, there are many cases of severe Covid-19 among people who don’t fall into any of these groups, so your best bet is still to take measures to avoid infection.