Texas is slowly reopening, but the COVID-19 pandemic is far from over. Truth is, reopening only works if we do it safely. And each of us plays an important role in limiting the spread of the virus and protecting our community, especially the most vulnerable.
So we spoke with Dr. Ricardo Lemos, St. Joseph and Texas A&M Health Network infectious disease specialist, who gave us some insight and advice as more businesses start to open their doors.
Why is it important to continue social distancing as Texas reopens?
Dr. Lemos: Because there is still active transmission of COVID-19 with an increase in the daily number of cases. In fact, many experts believe relaxation of quarantining and lockdown measures is unwarranted at this moment.
Why is 6 feet the appropriate distance apart?
Dr. Lemos: This is the minimum accepted distance due to laboratory experiments with droplet generation and the distance those droplets travel in normal conversation, cough, etc. The fact that there is evidence of aerosol transmission, which travels farther distances and remains in suspension for a longer time, places this benchmark in question, particularly in enclosed spaces.
Why is it important to wear a mask in public?
Dr. Lemos: To decrease the risk that a person would transmit the virus, as propulsion of respiratory droplets decreases in wearers of masks. It does not eliminate but does decrease the risk. So it does not prevent acquisition of COVID-19 unless the mask is a N95 respirator, which the vast majority aren’t.
How does a mask offer protection for myself and others?
Dr. Lemos: It decreases the amount of respiratory secretions and the distance they travel from a person wearing the mask. It will offer some protection to persons wearing them, but the main effect is in reduction of the transmission from potentially infected persons who might not yet have symptoms of the infection.
How do I wear a mask appropriately?
Dr. Lemos: First, clean your hands with soap and water or a rubbing alcohol solution, inspect the mask to make sure there are no holes, identify the top (where the metal strip is located), and the inside vs. outside. After pinching the metal strip to the contour of your nose, the mask should be extended beyond the limits of face, under the chin. Don’t touch the outside of the mask. Remove it if it becomes damp, since it will lose effectiveness, by holding and pulling the straps. Dispose of it or wash it if it’s made of washable material.
When is it ok NOT to wear a mask in public?
Dr. Lemos: In open areas where there is ventilation and there are not other persons in the vicinity closer than the recommended distance. It’s inappropriate to not wear a mask in enclosed spaces.
Why is it important to continue practicing good hand hygiene?
Dr. Lemos: Because there is evidence to suggest survival and transmission of the virus on contaminated surfaces, as well as the fact that we have the natural tendency to touch our faces, including our nose, mouth, and eyes.
How do I wash my hands appropriately?
Dr. Lemos: Use soap and water or an alcohol-containing gel solution made for hand hygiene. Cover the entire hand surface with the product and rub it for 20-30 seconds. If using soap and water, hands need to be dried after. Alcohol gels will dry up in the process of rubbing the hands with it. If hands are soiled, soap and water are preferable.
When and how often should I wash my hands?
Dr. Lemos: Any time one touches a surface that might be carrying droplets or other particles containing the virus — for example, a person’s own body (including the face), another person's body, and inanimate materials — in addition to the usual recommendations. There is not a predetermined number of times hands should be washed; it depends on one's occupation and daily activities. One should err on the side of washing hands more often rather than less.
Are there any other precautions we all should take?
Dr. Lemos: Don’t go to work or to any other areas where other people congregate if having symptoms that might indicate active infection, particularly fever, cough, headaches, and loss of sense of taste and smell. Contact your doctor, local hospital, or health department to find out about COVID-19 testing availability.
If I’m diagnosed with COVID-19 and have recently been out in public or in contact with people, what are my next steps?
Dr. Lemos: The Texas Health Department uses Texas Health Trace, an application that preserves one's privacy and helps inform the public health authorities of potential contacts. This is a voluntary activity. Limits in literacy and access to an internet connection, computer, or adequate mobile device will also limit its impact. In terms of release from quarantine, it should be determined by the healthcare provider based mostly on time since the resolution of symptoms.
Contact-tracing activities should be implemented by the health department to identify hot spots of transmission and place our intervention activities ahead of the curve rather than what we have been doing until now, which is wait 2 weeks to see what previous transmission dynamics have done (based on the fact that, on average, current cases reflect transmission dynamics from 7-14 days earlier).
If you begin to experience symptoms of COVID-19, such as fever, a dry cough, or a sore throat, stay home and schedule a televisit with your St. Joseph and Texas A&M Health Network primary care physician. They can help guide you toward your next steps.