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You Had Questions About Coronavirus in Colorado—Public Health Experts Have Answers

What does “social distancing” really mean? Is it OK to fly right now? How long will this all last? And what is with all the toilet paper hoarding?

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Confused and anxious about the new coronavirus (COVID-19)? We feel you. It’s been a strange and surreal couple of weeks as the pandemic continues to spread—in Colorado, across the country, and around the world. 

As the information and recommendations surrounding the outbreak seem to shift on a daily (and sometimes hourly) basis, it’s understandable that you have questions. Last week, we asked our followers on Instagram what questions they had for public health experts. Because the news is moving so fast, we added some of our own, as well. 

We spoke with two experts at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus for answers. From what social distancing actually entails to why people are so rabid about toilet paper to the likelihood of an at-home lockdown in Colorado and more, here’s what we learned. 

Note: The following information was shared with 5280 the afternoon of Monday, March 16. Because information and guidelines about the new coronavirus are changing very quickly, check the Colorado Department of Health and Environment website for the latest, most accurate updates about COVID-19 in Colorado. 

Should anyone be flying right now, even just domestically?
Unless you have a really extraordinary reason to hop on an airplane, no. “It’s just best to stay put for your own sake and for others,” says May Chu, PhD, clinical professor in the department of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “We are trying to break the back of this transmission,” she explains, and everyone—even those who are young and healthy—needs to play to their part to make that happen. Also, if you travel right now, you risk being locked down somewhere that’s not your home, adds Thomas Jaenisch, PhD, infectious disease epidemiologist, clinical scientist, and associate professor at the Colorado School of Public Health at the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus. “It’s not the time for a holiday flight,” he says. “Even if it’s 90 percent off,” adds Chu. 

What’s with all the toilet paper hoarding?
“No idea,” says Jaenisch. “[Toilet paper] seems to be a symbol of catastrophic events…I think it is a psychological phenomenon.”

“[Toilet paper] and also bottled water are the two things that fly off the shelves right away in hurricanes, in any kind of disaster,” adds Chu, who was formerly a senior science advisor for the CDC. “So I think it’s just a security thing that people fall back on without an explanation.” 

Whatever the reason, Jaenisch points out that stockpiling toilet paper is neither reasonable nor responsible. “Hopefully we will not face a shortage of essential goods,” he says.

I’m getting a package from Italy, from a region of concern. Should I be worried?
Not really. It’s highly unlikely that the virus would survive on an item that was shipped, especially if the shipping took more than three days, says Jaenisch. “You might worry about the package deliverer, but not the package,” adds Chu. If you are concerned, just clean the package with an alcohol wipe, advises Jaensich. 

Should I avoid public transportation right now?
Can you avoid public transportation is probably the more important question, says Jaenisch. Some folks, he points out, have no other option but to use local buses and trains. If that’s you, make sure to sit at least three to six feet away from others, and avoid touching surfaces. If putting your paws on something is necessary, do so with a tissue between your hand and the surface, says Chu. 

Also, find comfort in the fact that RTD announced new cleaning protocols last week. According to a memo released on Tuesday, March 10, vehicles are disinfected daily with antibacterial, industrial-strength products. “We’ve never had cleaner train cars and buses,” says Chu, adding that taking public transport is “probably fine” as long as you follow the precautions listed above. 

All that said, if you can avoid public transportation, Jaensich says it “would probably be reasonable” to do so, especially if you are above the age of 65. 

What is the risk to my pet if I test positive for coronavirus?
There’s very little information on this topic, says Chu. There are a few anecdotal reports of pets getting coronavirus infections from their owners and excreting the virus, she says, but we don’t have enough information yet to draw conclusions. For now, Chu says she doesn’t see any problem interacting with your animals as usual, though again, “we don’t know enough about it to give any smart advice.” 

I’m young and healthy, so I’m not too worried about getting super sick from the virus. But what can I do to help people who are more vulnerable?
Stay at home and only go out for essential reasons, like grocery shopping or visiting the pharmacy, says Jaenisch. Taking such measures may seem a bit drastic for young, healthy folks, but doing so will contribute to the overall slowdown of the pandemic and help everybody else. (It’s also probably OK to keep recreating outside—more on that in a minute.)

“Everybody’s got to do their part,” adds Chu. “If you don’t contribute your part, then it doesn’t work.” She points to Italy as a warning sign. “They didn’t take it seriously and look, they’re really suffering now. So we don’t want to [be] Italy here.” 

Also, if you’re healthy (i.e. not experiencing any symptoms of any sickness) and not in a high-risk category for COVID-19, you can offer to bring groceries or other essential supplies to your more vulnerable neighbors—and if possible, you should drop them off on the doorstep to avoid unnecessary contact. 

“Our neighbors are doing that in our neighborhood and I think that’s a lovely thing,” says Chu. “There are some social benefits from all this because you get to know your neighbors better, and you can care for them. We often are too busy to pay attention to that, and it actually makes your life a lot richer.” 

Let’s dig into what this “social distancing” thing really means. Are small gatherings at home OK?
“It’s a judgment call,” says Jaenisch. If you do have folks over, try to gather outside if possible and keep a three- to six-foot distance from others. Also, these gatherings should be limited to a small number of local people that you already see on a very regular basis. Now is not the time to catch up face-to-face with old pals you haven’t seen in a while, says Jaenisch. 

Also, if someone within that small group has a little bit of a cold or is beginning to run a fever, they should not attend, says Chu. (And if you’re in the throes of full-on sickness, you should definitely stay at home and away from others—and of course call your doctor as appropriate.)

Is it OK to go to the park with kids right now?
I think it’s OK,” says Jaenisch. If your kid is playing on a playground, wipe down any surfaces for extra caution, says Chu, adding that in general, the chances of getting infected from touching an outdoor play structure in Colorado is low. Why? Chu explains that though we don’t know yet exactly how this coronavirus behaves, it’s believed that sun and dry weather (aka typical weather in Colorado) desiccates the virus. That means the virus likely doesn’t last long on outdoor surfaces. (Of course, this depends on the level of risk you’re willing to take. Other public health experts have taken a stronger stance on this topic.) It’s more important to avoid contact with sick people. For that reason, if you are playing with others outside, make it a non-contact activity, says Jaensich. 

What about physical contact? Is It OK to touch anyone right now?
“My family is not hugging,” says Chu. “We’re not shaking hands. We just blow air kisses.”

“I’m hugging my kids,” says Jaenisch, “but I wouldn’t hug my parents.” 

Limiting physical contact to this degree will probably be difficult and may even sound draconian. “This is contrary to how we’re brought up so you feel sort of guilty,” says Chu. “But you need to get over that. It’s for the ultimate good.”  

Should I be deep cleaning my home right now?
If the virus is already in your home, “a super deep cleaning is needed,” says Chu. But even if your home isn’t infected with COVID-19, cleaning can be a good way to beat boredom, says Jaenisch. Also: “You can get rid of all the allergens, the mites, whatever else you have in the house,” says Chu. 

I’ve heard a lot about how it’s important to disinfect “commonly used household items.” What constitutes a commonly used household item?
Anything that you commonly touch and that everybody touches—like door handles and the toilet flush handle, says Chu. Also, don’t forget your electronics, like your phone and computer. 

How should I disinfect these things?
Follow the instructions on your bottle of bleach, says Chu. The CDC recommends “clean frequently touched surfaces and objects using a regular household detergent and water.” 

How likely is a widespread at-home lockdown in Colorado?
I don’t know,” says Jaenisch. “Right now bars and restaurants have been closed. The next stage of that would be an at-home lock down.” He describes current circumstances in Italy where only supermarkets and pharmacies are open, only one person from each family can go to the supermarket, and such a trip can only be made once a day. But he’s not sure how likely it is that such an ordinance would happen here. 

My local gym is closed. Is it OK to exercise outside?
“It’s probably fine to go out, go hiking, go play non-contact sports,” says Chu, adding “it’s probably good to do that—especially if you have kids in the home and they just need to expend their energy.” But again, make sure that you’re recreating in small groups and avoiding physical contact with others. Also, be careful not to hurt yourself. “We don’t want any additional reasons to go to the hospital right now,” says Jaenisch. 

How long do you predict this is all supposed to last?
“That’s difficult,” says Jaenisch. “I think we’ll reassess after two to three weeks. But it could actually take until July, August, or even longer.” It all depends on the effect of the measures folks are taking right now, he explains.  

“And I think that’s the main message to people,” adds Chu. “If we’re going to be homebound and we’re going to observe this social distancing, it’s all really for everybody’s sake. And if we do it together, we’ll be successful in breaking the chain of transmission.” 

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