This post was updated Friday to include the latest guidance on COVID-19 precautions.
To contain the impact of COVID-19, the illness caused by the new coronavirus, state and local health officials on Wednesday released recommendations that people who are over 60, have underlying health conditions or weakened immune systems or who are pregnant should stay home and avoid large gatherings (defined as those of more than 10), and that employers should enable telecommuting where possible.
The county is also encouraging large gatherings to be postponed if possible. At the Public Health – Seattle & King County news conference announcing the expanded containment recommendations, health officer Jeff Duchin encouraged people in areas affected by COVID-19 to decrease “the intensity and frequency of your contact with other people.”
But in the course of everyday life, this may not always be possible. Here are expert recommendations for protecting your health if you need to go out.
Can I still go out? It depends. Follow public health guidance
Wondering whether you should run errands, go to work, go to the gym, or generally go about your daily business? People who are over 60 or pregnant, or who have weakened immune systems or underlying health conditions have been encouraged by the county to stay home and “should be aware that they are in an elevated risk group for more severe disease,” said Janet Baseman, associate dean and professor of epidemiology at the University of Washington School of Public Health. You should also stay home if you’re sick, she said: “[I]f somebody is not feeling well, please don’t do those things.”
For people who will likely have milder responses to the virus, Baseman stressed that the choice to continue with everyday activities that may involve crowded spaces is a personal one, but encouraged people to comply with guidance from public health officials to work remotely if possible and limit contact with other people.
That choice may be more complicated for people with loved ones who are immuno-compromised. Baseman said this is a common challenge, and recommended that people “who live with somebody who may be at higher risk of a complication” follow guidance from public health officials, draft an appropriate plan and take precautions to minimize transmission.
These include Public Health – Seattle & King County’s now-familiar public health recommendations: frequent hand-washing, avoiding touching your face, and social distancing measures like avoiding contact with people who are sick. According to Public Health’s Katie Ross, you should also cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue (and throw it away), cough or sneeze into your upper sleeve, and if you’re using hand sanitizer, make sure it contains at least 60-95% alcohol.
Even if you’re not in a vulnerable group, following all of these guidelines, known as nonpharmaceutical interventions (NPIs), helps to protect those who are. According to Baseman, evidence from prior outbreaks suggests that “any one community-level mitigation strategy can’t work 100% by itself, but … the more layers of those NPIs that you institute, the more likely you are to have a successful community mitigation response.”
She likens the strategy to a stack of Swiss cheese slices. “If you have an individual piece of Swiss cheese it has holes in it,” she said, “but if you have a stack of Swiss cheese pieces on top of each other, then you’ve got a pretty good barrier.”
When people take precautions to limit their own exposure to COVID-19, she said, “they’re protecting everybody else that they may be exposed to later, in addition to themselves.”
Has anything been canceled because of the outbreak?
A number of events have been canceled locally, including a major fundraising dinner for local Democrats. Emerald City Comic Con has been postponed until summer; several exhibitors, including DC Comics, had pulled out of the convention before the cancellation was announced.
For now, public health officials are not requiring wholesale closures and cancellations of large gatherings, but they are encouraging that these events be postponed, and all of King County’s nonessential large-group meetings have been canceled.
Currently there are no coronavirus-related closures at Seattle Public Libraries or King County Library System. Representatives for both library systems said that they are closely monitoring the situation via public health agencies, and are making information about the coronavirus readily available to patrons. A Town & Country Markets spokesperson said Wednesday that the supermarket chain was cleaning constantly, encouraging ill workers to stay home and canceling market events like wine tastings and cooking demos. Ethan Stowell Restaurants have increased the breadth and frequency of their cleaning. Performing arts organizations that utilize McCaw Hall, like Pacific Northwest Ballet and the Seattle Opera, planned to comply with any forthcoming guidance from Seattle Center.
The situation is evolving rapidly, so check an organization’s website or social media pages for latest updates before you leave your home to go to an event. “If you don’t have to be in close contact with others, please don’t at this time,” Duchin said at Wednesday’s news conference.
What shouldn’t you do? One word: masks
The consensus among the experts: Masks are for health care professionals, not everyday use. The function of masking is to protect health care workers in a setting where someone is ill, said Baseman. There’s already a shortage of masks, and “we need those masks for our health care providers right now.” There’s also “not a clear benefit” to wearing a mask on the street. There’s one exception: Public health officials are encouraging people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 infections to wear a mask when around other people if they have one on hand.
Health officials are also discouraging people from going to emergency rooms if they suspect a case of COVID-19; check with your doctor instead. “We do not want the situation that has been seen in other areas … where the health care system was overloaded and unable to cope,” said King County Executive Dow Constantine at Wednesday’s news conference.
A video statement released in English and Spanish by UW Medicine also emphasized the dangers of perpetuating stigma around the illness that’s already contributed to an uptick in racism leveled at Asian American communities.
“Do not let fear paralyze you. … We know that there’s a lot of misinformation and we also know that there’s a lot of unnecessary stigma around certain populations, and I would caution folks and remind them that infections don’t have a predilection,” UW Medicine’s Dr. Santiago Neme said in the video. “They can affect all of us and we’re all equally at risk so let’s not judge.”
Generally, panic is unhelpful, said Baseman, who encouraged people in affected areas to keep up with advisories from the city and county’s public health officials.