As we emerge from restrictions put in place to manage the COVID-19 pandemic, our individual health and safety depends on a collective community effort. The coronavirus is still here. People will still get infected and some will still need to be hospitalized. But in most regions that are relaxing restrictions, the chances of getting infected have gone down and the healthcare system is in good shape.
As we open up, the biggest difference in our lives will be spending more time indoors in places outside of our homes. And with people outside of our household. When looking at infection rates, the overwhelming majority of them appear to have occurred inside. This is due to the limited ventilation, the influx of large numbers of people and, in some cases, gathering for a long period of time such as over a meal or in a place of worship.
For the first phase of this pandemic, we were asked to do two key things, wash hands regularly and physically distance from others. These actions are still important but reopening may make it more challenging to do. As a result, wearing masks and carrying hand sanitizer (greater than 60% alcohol) are advised.
Exposure X Time = Risk of Infection
The US CDC has recently revised their guidance indicating the coronavirus is transmitted mainly through person-to-person spread. However, it can still spread through contact with infected surfaces so hand washing is still very important.
But being exposed to the coronavirus doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll be infected. Scientists are still learning about how the virus spreads but it is likely a combination of exposure and time. The exposure being how many virus particles one is subjected to, and time, the duration. The longer one is in an area where the virus is, the greater the chance to be infected.
The coronavirus is contained in particles called droplets. These particles are released from the lungs. Because of their size and weight, they don’t travel far and fall to whatever surface is directly below. How many droplets are released depend on a few things. For example, a sneeze contains more droplets, which go further, than a cough. And in turn, a cough has more droplets that go further than talking or breathing.
However, your chances of getting infected also depends on how long you’re exposed. For example, sitting across from an infected person during a meal may result in greater exposure than just passing by someone who sneezes. And talking releases more droplets than simple breathing. Shopping, another common activity, is generally low risk as you’re continually walking through the store and not gathering. In contrast, the risk is higher for the person who is working the whole day in that same store.
Contributing to the Collective Good
In order to keep everyone safe, keep new cases down and the economy open, we all need to participate and follow some simple guidance, and trust others will do the same.
Probably one of the most important things we can do is to stay at home if we feel unwell. This is a practice we should always be following, but in our society going to work while sick is a badge of honour. A survey last fall revealed 90% of people have gone to work while being sick. Employers also have a role to play by providing paid sick leave, however, in the US, not all do. For these employees, it becomes a choice between health and finances, and putting collective health at risk.
Along with reopening, allowances for small gatherings have increased. In my area, gatherings up to six people outside of one’s household are allowed. This refers to people who you aren’t physically distancing from. Meaning people you may have over at your house, or go to a restaurant with or exercise side-by-side with. People you see, like your neighbour who you stay more than two metres apart while you chat over the fence, don’t count in these six people.
With these gatherings, trust also comes into play as well as clear communication. It’s important to know who the people you’re gathering with are also interacting with. It should not be thought of as each person in your gathering of six also gathers with six others. The way viruses spread, a dinner of six people really translates to one of thirty-six.
The number six is by no means magic, or scientifically based. For example, meeting up with two other people, one of whom just flew in from a COVID-19 hotspot and another who doesn’t practice physical distancing, may carry more risk than a dinner party with nine other people who only see each other and never wander out of their respective homes.
The Decision to Engage in Reopening is Yours
The reopening of the economy will be a relief to many. People will benefit from the increased social contact, and those out of work will now be able to draw an income. But anxiety may increase for others such as those who are concerned about the virus spreading or who may have a chronic disease and be more vulnerable. If you find your anxiety increasing, there are a number of things you can do to help.
Whether you fully engage in your area’s reopening or not is a personal choice based on your own comfort. But through collective effort, following a few simple behaviours, the relaxing of restrictions should provide a low risk environment and welcome change.
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