The first line of defense against coronavirus: Try soap, not a mask

specimen testing

Chase Anderson, a master’s degree student in epidemiology, readies suspected flu viruses for testing, at a University of Michigan laboratory that assesses the effectiveness of annual flu vaccines. (Bridge photo by Robin Erb)

For all the high-tech, high-intellect lab work that's being done around the globe to protect humans from coronavirus, it's the decidedly low-tech precautions — spoiler alert: wash your hands — that are the most effective as a first-line defense.

Perhaps more glamorous advice is likely to stick for people who otherwise dismiss tips like “keep your cough to yourself,” mused Jay Fiedler, director of the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services’ emergency preparedness and response division.

The best advice to fight respiratory illnesses — whether caused by influenza, common cold viruses, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control & Prevention:

  • Wash hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds. It’s especially important after using the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing or sneezing.
  • No soap and water? Use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.
  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

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  • If you’re sick, stay home.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
  • “Everyone wants us to say something like, ‘Oh, you should wear a mask.’ We're not gonna say that,” Fiedler said.

The CDC specifically states that it does not advise healthy U.S. residents to wear masks because “this virus is not currently spreading in the community in the United States.” Other health experts question whether readily available surgical-type masks work against coronavirus.

“I wish we had something different than what we always preach for cold and flu season. But it’s ‘Keep your cough to yourself,’ and ‘Wash your hands,’” Fiedler said. 

“The message may be old and tired, and people are like ‘Whatever. It’s the health department.’ But it’s really important.”

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Sun, 02/09/2020 - 6:39am

Hurray and thanks Robin Erb and Bridge Michigan. Let's share these guidelines like crazy.

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 10:51am

I don't accept the above advice about masks. Asia is using them for a good reason. They have succeeded and we are failing. The article makes this statement --> "The CDC specifically states that it does not advise healthy U.S. residents to wear masks because “this virus is not currently spreading in the community in the United States.” Huh? IT'S NOT SPREADING IN THE COMMUNITY IN THE US? That may have been true 2 months ago. I recommend that if you have a cough or are sneezing and don't live alone, or if you are healthy and also at high risk and in a public space or living with others, you should wear a mask (if you have a few at home) and not just use tissues or your elbow! Reducing risk by even 10% is critical. Don't hoard masks, don't scalp masks to make money, donate or share extra masks if you have more than you need, don't buy them if you already have a few, and try to reuse your mask by sterilizing it. (That's only intuitive advice given the shortage of masks and not based on research.) If anyone has specific knowledge about sterilizing masks so they can be reused, I'd like to know. I'd like to hear DHHS give better advice about who should use a mask and when in order to protect themselves and others.

Tue, 03/24/2020 - 10:53am

I just realized that this article was published in EARLY FEBRUARY. The CDC comment about no problem with community spread is completely irrelevant on 3/24!

Alex Sagady
Fri, 07/24/2020 - 3:29am

The science, public health and medical content of this article sure
didn't age very well, did it?