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Some commonsense tips to prepare for the spread of coronavirus

What can you, as an individual, be doing? Well, not panicking about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in your communities, for one. But there are things you can and should do to be prepared.

A health advisory sign at a Park Nicollet clinic.
A health advisory sign at a Park Nicollet clinic.
MinnPost photo by Jana Freiband

No confirmed cases of the COVID-19 coronavirus have been reported yet in Minnesota, but that will most likely change in the coming weeks.

As Michael Osterholm, director of the University of Minnesota’s Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) told Star Tribune reporter Jeremy Olson, trying to prevent the spread of such a virus is “like trying basically to stop the wind.”

“We need to really get away from the idea of containment, which can’t happen, and focus more on mitigation,” Osterholm added.

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Health care officials and personnel throughout the state are already taking steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19 when it does hit Minnesota, but individuals need to prepare as well.

“It’s very likely that COVID-19 could actually affect our daily lives as Minnesotans,” said Kris Ehresmann, director of infectious diseases at the Minnesota Department of Health (MDH), in an interview with KARE 11 reporter Alex Hagan.

What should we, as individuals, be doing? Well, we shouldn’t be panicking about the possibility of a COVID-19 outbreak in our communities, but we should be prepared.

A slew of good articles on how individuals should make those preparations have been published in the national press in recent days. Most of the advice involves simple, commonsense tips — the same ones health experts recommend for avoiding the flu each year.

One of the most basic — and most effective — of those tips is also one that most people either overlook or don’t do properly, as Gina Kolata of the New York Times reports:

During the SARS epidemic — also caused by a coronavirus, but one that was much deadlier — hand-washing reduced the risk of transmission by 30 to 50 percent. …

The thing is, Americans aren’t very good at it.

Wet your hands with clean running water and then lather them with soap; don’t miss the backs of your hands, between your fingers and under your nails.

Scrub your hands for at least 20 seconds. (Parents sometimes tell children that this is about the time it takes to sing “Happy Birthday” twice.)

Finally, rinse your hands well with clean, running water. Dry them with a clean towel or let them air dry.

If it is not feasible to wash your hands with water, you can use a hand sanitizer, but check the label to be sure it contains at least 60 percent alcohol.

Squirt the gel onto your palms, rub your hands together, and then rub the gel all over your hands and fingers until your hands are dry. This step should take about 20 seconds, as well.

Kolata also points out the importance of taking the symptoms of a viral infection seriously — whether those symptoms appear in others or in yourself:

Americans often disregard colds and flus, continuing about their ordinary business until the infection worsens. And many people who work in minimum-wage jobs do not get sick days. Sometimes they must work even when ill, despite the fact that they have a lot of contact with the public.

The upshot is that there are often people with symptoms in public places — and without apology, you should put distance between you and them. Try for six feet, but even a little distancing is helpful.

“If you see someone on a bus who is coughing, move away,” said Dr. Stanley Perlman, an infectious disease and coronavirus expert at the University of Iowa.

And do your colleagues a favor if you aren’t feeling well: Stay home from work. Please.

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Experts do not advise, however, stocking up on surgical facemasks. You don’t need to wear them unless you’re sick, as a team of Washington Post journalists report:

“The main point of the mask is to keep someone who is infected with the virus from spreading it to others,” [said Timothy Brewer, a professor of epidemiology and medicine at the University of California-Los Angeles].

The CDC agrees, writing on its website: “CDC does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases.”

Common surgical masks block the droplets coming out of a sick person from getting into the air, but they are not tight enough to prevent what’s already in the air from getting in.

There are specialized masks — known as N95 masks because they filter out 95 percent of airborne particles — that are more effective, and some online retailers are sold out of them. But there’s a problem: The masks are difficult to use without training. They must be fitted and tested to work properly.

And what about stocking up on food and medicines? Writes NPR’s Maria Godoy:

The reason to stock up on certain products now isn’t so much to avoid potential shortages in the event of an outbreak but to practice what experts call social distancing. Basically, you want to avoid crowds to minimize your risk of catching the disease. If COVID-19 is spreading in your community, the last place you want to be is in line at a crowded grocery store or drugstore.

If you take daily medications — for example, blood pressure pills — make sure you have enough to last a couple of weeks, suggests Katz, as long as you can get approval for an extended supply from your insurance provider.

Also worth pre-buying: fever reducers like acetaminophen or ibuprofen, says Edith Bracho-Sanchez, a pediatrician with Columbia University Medical Center.

Think about adding enough nonperishable foods to your pantry to carry you through for a couple of weeks, adds Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease physician and a senior scholar at Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Health Security.

Bracho-Sanchez suggests having on hand your go-to sickbed foods, like chicken or vegetable broth and crackers in case of illness, as well as hydrating drinks such as Gatorade and Pedialyte for kids (though so far, kids seem less vulnerable to COVID-19).

That’s because if you do get sick, you want to be ready to ride it out at home if need be. So far, 80% of COVID-19 cases have been mild. (Think cold or flu symptoms.)

For more information:  You’ll find more information and tips about preparing for COVID-19 within the articles cited above. You can also keep up to date with what’s going on in Minnesota regarding COVID-19 at the MDH’s website. CIDRAP has also recently launched a COVID-19 resource page, where you can find updated news and information on the virus.