Precautions during the pandemic

24th Apr 2020
Precautions during the pandemic

It seems a long time ago now that we first heard reports of this new virus emerging in Wuhan, China. As we watched the lock down happening in China, it seemed to be happening so far away. Then, Italy started to report rising cases of the coronavirus and soon it was all over Europe and the US. Then, we were all waiting for the lockdown to happen here – and now we are all socially isolating and limiting time outside of our homes.

As with any emergency, information is important; with daily Government updates and constant analysis by news channels, we have heard from many health professionals, epidemiologists, virologists, logistics experts and so on. Often ideas and opinions differ – should we have gone into lockdown sooner? Should we have closed schools earlier/left schools open? Should the lockdown measures be tougher? On top of the expected differences in opinion by experts, there is the fake news – a whole host of things to do to stop you getting the virus and treatments to take if you do get the virus.

Be cautious about social media messages that are doing the rounds and check facts before you forward messages – forwarding false or misleading information is not helpful. We need to follow reliable scientific advice and join the national effort to stop the spread of the virus.
What we know is that Covid-19 attacks the respiratory system; that is your nose, throat, airways and lungs. Once inside your airways, the virus will attack cells in the mucous membranes that line the respiratory system. Your immune system will detect the virus and launch an immune response and you may start to get symptoms such as sore throat, fever and a dry cough.

The main route of transmission of the virus is droplets from an infected person getting into your respiratory system, i.e. from you breathing in droplets from someone who has coughed or sneezed or is near you. Hence, we are told to self-isolate if we have any symptoms and we have been told to use social distancing – that is keeping 2 metres apart when we go.

This reduces the risk of breathing in infected droplets – however not going out at all and staying home is going to reduce your risk of getting infected the most. It is also essential to understand that some people are infectious before they get symptoms, and some people have little or no symptoms with the virus but can still spread it – so just because people look ok does not mean they are not carrying and spreading the virus. So social distancing is a critical step in stopping the spread of the virus.

Another route of transmission is picking the virus up from contaminated surfaces – which may have been contaminated by an infected person coughing or sneezing near them or touching the surface before you. We know the virus can live on hard surfaces like metal and plastic for a few days, hence the advice that we should all wash our hands thoroughly (for at least 20s using soap and water) or use hand sanitiser. It is also why many shops are asking people to pay with cards rather than cash and banks have increased the upper limit for contactless payments to £45.

These measures are generally agreed on in terms of preventing the spread of the disease. Wearing gloves and masks in public has also been debated, and this has generated different opinions. Wearing latex gloves when you go to the supermarket would seem a sensible idea to prevent you picking up the virus from contaminated surfaces but Public Health England (PHE) and the WHO have not recommended the public wear gloves to protect themselves. Instead, they say that people should prioritise social distancing and frequent washing of hands.

One of the reasons behind this advice is that gloves may give a ‘false sense of security’ and washing hands is a better precaution. If you are wearing gloves as you touch things the outsides of the gloves may pick up germs and viruses – therefore, you still need to make sure you do not touch your face or eyes as this can transfer the virus and infect you. Similarly, you can still transfer the virus to other surfaces, such as door handles and mobile phones.

Once you are home, you need to remember the virus could be on the outsides of your gloves, which you may touch whilst removing them so you still need to wash your hands – just as you would if you didn’t wear them. Then you need to dispose of or sterilise the gloves as they are a source of contamination, which would explain why washing hands is still given priority to reduce the spread of the virus.

Wearing a face mask has probably generated more debate. Again, PHE and the WHO have not recommended the use of face masks in public. However, in China face masks were made compulsory and other countries such as Hong Kong, South Korea, the Czech Republic have also taken this route.

Recently the Centre for Disease Control (CDC) in America has advised the public to wear face masks (including home-made cloth face masks if medical ones are unavailable) in situations where social distancing may be difficult to maintain e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies. So why is this advice different from the WHO?

On April 8 the WHO said there was no evidence to suggest wearing a face mask outside prevents healthy people from picking up Covid-19. This was following a panel review, which assessed data from Hong Kong that suggested widespread use of face masks may have reduced the spread.

But the WHO maintained that whilst masks could help to limit the spread of Covid-19 when worn by people infected with the virus, as it could reduce the number of infected droplets getting into the air, they were insufficient on their own to protect healthy people. In short, wearing a mask may stop infected people from spreading infected droplets but it does not sufficiently protect healthy people from getting the virus.

Some of the reasons cited for not advising the wearing of masks is that firstly people need to know how to put them on correctly, remove them correctly and dispose of them without spreading any potential virus that could be on the surface of the mask. Masks worn incorrectly could still allow the virus to still enter through the nose and mouth, plus the virus can still enter through the eyes.

Also, not all available medical masks will be of a high enough quality to filter out infectious air particles. Thus, people wearing masks could get a false sense of security and not adhere to other guidelines such as hand washing, self-isolation and social distancing, which are proven to be effective. So, wearing a mask might lead people to take risks they would not take without one.

A 2014 study conducted after the SARS outbreak, where masks were also widely worn in Asia, showed inconclusive results on their effectiveness. “Inconsistent results were found in the systematic review evaluating studies on respiratory protection,” states the report.

This has all led to the WHO not advising the use of face masks by the public.
Some countries have also probably been reluctant to advise wearing face masks as they need the medical face masks for health professionals and key workers and know there are not enough masks to hand out to the public. However, the Czech Republic has advised the public to wear masks and make their own cloth face masks if needed.

They have said that masks can provide ‘partial’ protection with a promotional video using the slogan, ‘I protect you and you protect me’, to emphasise how wearing a mask reduces the spread of droplets from potentially infected people infecting others, which could be significant as people can be infected but do not have any symptoms.

For similar reasons the CDC in America has advised that people wear homemade masks (made from 100 per cent cotton) when in public and social distancing could be difficult to maintain. Instructions on how to make masks have been put online.

The reason behind this advice is again that it might help to reduce infected droplets from people who have the virus but are not showing any symptoms. If you have symptoms, you still need to self-isolate.

Overall, it seems masks can be used to help reduce the spread and ‘flatten the curve’ of infections, but on their own, they do not provide enough protection from Covid-19 as there are other routes that you can get the infection other than breathing in droplets. So, whether you chose to wear a mask or not, it is important to remember that good hygiene, hand washing and social distancing are still the key factors to prevent the spread and keep you and your families safe.

Rachel Kayani
*The Muslim News has been covering the story on Coronavirus since January

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