Embracing the new normal of COVID-19

Dr. Cedric O. Buckley,

Special to The Mississippi Link,

In a world that seems eerily turned upside-down, I find myself alone in my thoughts some days. Even as a trained molecular virologist of over 20 years and a member of Mayor Chokwe Lumumba’s COVID-19 Pandemic Taskforce, I recognize that matters are dire for many.

Every day I see news outlets interviewing politicians, intelligence officials, international business executives – and the list goes on – about those who have tested positive for COVID-19 (coronavirus disease-2019, also called SARS-COV-2). No one wants to become the next “newly infected individual”

Yet, we all know “shelter-in-place” emergency orders cannot continue indefinitely. Now is the time for community-wide education and training programs that promote practices each of us must adopt to slow the spread of coronavirus infections, hospitalizations and related deaths.

The key will be to establish effective, long-term practices that a majority of our citizens are both willing and able to implement within the household. 

States and municipalities may need to consider public-private partnerships designed to ensure underserved populations have the resources needed for widespread adoption and full compliance. This long-term educational process will require both purposeful participation and a considerable commitment from all of us to be successful.

Our focus moving into the “new normal” must embrace some fundamental societal changes – practical, long-term adjustments to our daily lives designed to dramatically slow rates of infection from SARS-COV-2. In so doing, we will be providing the scientific community time to develop effective medical therapies and a vaccine.

Determining how we got to this point is a conversation best left for another time. Looming large, however, is a reasonably predictable and unfortunately bleak future, unless we adopt for ourselves and our loved ones some sensible, effective practices and ways of thinking that will result in safer, more responsible living starting today.

What Can We Control?

Although testing is singularly critical to detect and isolate asymptomatic cases, we all have a much more powerful weapon to dramatically lower infection rates and slow the spread of this virus in our homes, our communities, our city and this state. That weapon is personal responsibility.

Finding our way through this pandemic is going to require each of us to slow down. Yes, slow….down. Each of us will have to take time to evaluate how we go through our typical day, paying close attention to what we do with our hands when we put our hands and fingers near our eyes, noses and mouths, and when we put our fingers in our mouths.

Why? Because we as scientists understand the routes of infection – the delicate mucosal film bathing our eyes that keeps them from drying out (conjunctiva), our nasal passages, our oral cavities, and any open cuts, sores or wounds on our bodies. That’s it. SARS-Cov-2 cannot infect individuals directly through skin contact.

As individuals, we have very little influence when it comes to testing. But, we do have considerable influence over our bodies and, to a large extent, our immediate surroundings. So let’s pay attention to what we can control.

Watch out for your mouth and your hands

When was the last time you thought about your toothbrushes? How do you store them? Are they a safe distance from the toilet in an upright container that allows them to air dry? Do you have all the kids’ toothbrushes inches away from each other in that same cute toothbrush holder?

When was the last time you placed each toothbrush in a separate small cup of 3% hydrogen peroxide to sterilize? Are you replacing all toothbrushes at a minimum every three months as recommended by the American Dental Association?

And what about your fingernails? Are you keeping your nail bed clean? How about underneath your nails? If you have natural nails, have you considered trimming them to keep them short? Are you a nail biter? If so, you’ve got to kick that habit. You are exposing yourself to potential infection every time you put your finger (and those nails) in your mouth.

Same for teenagers and adults who have not yet broken the habit of sucking a thumb now and then (yes, it happens…I’ve seen it with my own eyes). If you are “rocking the acrylic nails,” are you following the cleaning guidelines your nail technician provided you?

If you wear contact lenses, consider returning to traditional glasses until you absolutely trust your hand washing technique. Limiting the need to touch your fingers to your eyes will reduce inadvertent infections.

Keep your nose clean

Are you a nose picker? (Don’t feel bad. Many adults secretly are.) Even so, now’s the time to stop this practice. The skin inside our noses is very delicate. You’d be surprised how easily it is scratched, providing a perfect, microscopic opening for SARS-Cov-2 infectious particles to slip right inside.

The correct way, you ask? First, wash your hands. Next, grab a tissue, paper towel or other disposal paper product (not a rag.). Now, blow (and “probe” with the tissue if necessary). Immediately throw away the tissue…and yes, wash your hands.

If you don’t wash your hands after blowing (or picking) your nose, you could have just contaminated your fingers and hands with bacteria or viruses. All that would be left is for you to rub your eyes, the corners of your mouth or grab some finger food and you’ve infected yourself.

On the surface

Our kitchen habits present another opportunity to spread the virus. If your hands aren’t clean when you touch various kitchen items (a loaf of bread, a bowl of grapes, or the refrigerator, for example), you could be contaminating several high-use surfaces daily. When others come behind you and use those items or appliances, your entire household could potentially become infected from that common contaminated object.

It’s a good idea to wipe down “high use” surfaces in your home at least 2-3 times per day. Pay special attention to doorknobs and appliance handles, light switches used regularly and television and video game remotes. Once you begin to think about these “high use” items and areas in your own home, you will begin to pay more attention to them wherever you go.

The new normal

As we resume daily activities in increasingly larger social gatherings, I encourage each of us to please remain aware of when, where and how to reduce exposure for ourselves and our loved ones. Coronavirus certainly has more surprises for us as scientists in terms of health outcomes. I am committed to providing practical information to you so that each of us can live as safely and responsibly as possible.

It may sound a bit overwhelming at first, but with practice, all of these adjustments and sacrifices will become habit. Here’s a bonus benefit: when you make this a part of how you live your life moving forward in “the new normal,” you will likely notice that you (and hopefully your family) have fewer colds and flu since they are transmitted the same way.

Here’s to our collective health. Stay safe and wash those hands.

Photo by of Dr. Cedric O. Buckley by Mitch C. Davis.

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