We all are painfully aware of the current situation plaguing our nation: COVID-19. As weeks pass, we see the effects of the virus on our neighbors, friends, and even family, we have been doing our part and taking every necessary precaution, and we are finally seeing cases start to decline. States are slowly taking steps to reopen as people anxiously await the return of their normal life but, will our lives ever look the way they did in December?
As a scientist I can’t help but think about the critical public health steps that we missed as a nation. Many preventative measures we took may have been massively more effective had they been implemented much earlier. If we want to prevent history from repeating itself there are changes we should consider making as a society.
In the coming weeks, immediately after re-opening, people will be hesitant. Many people will choose to stay home, social distancing will continue, and we will all try to get back to semi-normal lives. I myself am eager to resume my life as a toxicology Ph.D. at Rutgers University, but part of me is still very concerned. After a few months, when the initial shock fades and we all fall back into old habits, will we still be at risk of a resurgence or even be susceptible to another virus? How do we ensure that we are prepared should something like this occur again?
During the pandemic, we put several measures in place to ensure that workers have minimal exposure to the virus and to make essential public places as safe as possible. Stores altered their hours, deep cleaning started happening more regularly, plastic shields were placed between cashiers and customers, and people altered their own hygiene habits. Once we have opened again we should try and keep some of these measures and precautions in place to prevent a resurgence of COVID-19 and to keep this from occurring in the future.
There are many things we have done during this pandemic that could easily stick and become the new normal in our society.
Emphasis on personal hygiene is one easy change that each individual can make to ensure we lessen the spread of all viruses. In 2013, a study was performed by Michigan State University where researchers discreetly watched people wash their hands. This study concluded that only five percent of people wash their hands to the extent necessary to remove viruses and bacteria. Because of the virus, most people have been taking the time to properly wash their hands with soap and warm water for 30 seconds or more per the CDC guidelines, but reverting back to the “splash and dash,” method of hand washing could contribute to a second wave.
The coronavirus is an enveloped virus, creating a protective outer layer that is water loving and will very easily stick to your hands. Soap molecules also have this same water loving component which the outer envelope of the virus will be attracted to, causing the outer shell to dissolve, killing the virus. If we do not wash our hands frequently and correctly, the virus could be spread through very simple tasks like touch our faces, food, and other surfaces. According to the CDC, maintenance of proper hand washing and hand washing education reduces the spread of respiratory illnesses in the general population by 16-21 percent.
Keeping hand washing signs up in bathrooms and continuing to was our hands frequently will keep us healthier overall and will help us from infecting ourselves and our loved ones. Maintaining our habits once the threat of the virus subsides will ensure that any lingering COVID or other viruses will be killed off via hand washing. This will help to prevent the start of a second wave.
Closing stores earlier to ensure proper cleaning is another change that would be valuable if kept. Even though we have been living through the effects of this virus for the past few months, there is still very little known about it. According to a study performed the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the virus can persist in the air for three hours, for two to nine days on steel, non-porous and plastic surfaces. Because of its nature as an enveloped virus that is made up of fat, rather than a stronger material like protein, disinfectants are able to eliminate the virus quite effectively.
Closing stores that are typically open 24hrs for a few hours at night to sanitize and clean effectively before the next day could help keep both workers and consumers safe. If we do not continue to take these precautions, then the risk of spread via surfaces will increase. This could contribute to a second wave of infections.
Keeping the protective shields between workers and consumers would also be beneficial as it prevents the unintentional spread of respiratory droplets. According to WHO, droplets can be transmitted when a person is near another with respiratory symptoms. This could easily be said of a store cashier and a patron paying for their goods. These workers are front line and come into contact with many people each day.
As the use of masks becomes more lenient in the coming months, these workers will become more at risk of contracting viruses from respiratory droplets. These workers may also unknowingly spread viruses to patrons before their symptoms start to show as it takes seven to 14 days for symptoms to manifest according to CDC. If this were to occur, we would again be at risk for a second wave, especially as many people are anxious to begin shopping more and wearing masks less. The infrastructure has already been put into place in many stores to ensure the health works, so there would be no harm in continuing the practice.
I acknowledge that these changes may seem unnecessary and people may just want to get back to how things were before. Unfortunately, things need to change regardless. There will be a new normal in our society as things begin to open back up. We need to put measure into place that will help prevent this from affecting our nation so dramatically again in the future. We have already started making the changes necessary to prevent the spread of infectious disease, so why not continue forward with the habit?
Keeping our new found habits as our new normal may not only prevent a resurgence, but may even keep us safe during any similar threats to public health in the future.
Melissa L. Wilkinson, Highland Park resident, Doctoral Student, ToxicologyThe Joint Graduate Program in ToxicologyRutgers Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy