We recently heard the double-question, “If masks work, why can’t we reopen businesses? If they don’t work, why do we have to wear them?” It was a valid question and it made us stop and think about the role and importance of precautions.
There is a lot of chatter right now about precautions with some confusion about their purpose and effectiveness. So here are some thoughts to help clarify our position as the “Integrous Fam.” The short version is that precautions are layers (think layers of clothing in winter): none protects by itself alone, but each one stacks on top of the other for a significantly reduced risk of illness and transmission. Washing hands PLUS wearing a mask PLUS social distancing PLUS being outdoors PLUS staying at home PLUS not touching your face PLUS exercise PLUS stress reduction together create a cumulative protective effect.
Exposure is unavoidable.
We can’t eliminate our risk of exposure to COVID-19. We’ll interact with it in the grocery store, on the gas pump handle, and through interactions with people (however limited they may be). It’s impossible to live in a vacuum and never come into contact with it. So the goal becomes, “How do I limit my exposure and keep it at a low level so that at any given time it doesn’t overwhelm my immune system?” Think of the #flattenthecurve concept. (Some of you just winced.) The goal is that total cases are kept at a manageable level so as to never peak and overwhelm the healthcare system. Translate that into your personal health. You’re inevitably exposed to the virus, but each precaution you take minimizes the risk of it overwhelming your “resources” (immune system) at any given time.
Precautions have a cumulative effect.
To look at it another way, picture each precaution as a layer. You don’t go outside in a T-shirt and boxers when it’s freezing and expect to stay warm. In the same way, you can’t expect a single precaution to eliminate your risk. However, when stacked upon each other, like layers of clothing, they greatly reduce your chances of being negatively impacted by a harsh environment. Not only that, but each one places a layer of protection on the people around you: those you live with, those you choose not to see during this time, and those in your broader community.
- Frequent and thorough hand-washing (or use of hand-sanitizer) reduces the viral load that you carry to your face and to objects that will be touched by others. This is the single most important step in slowing the spread of any contagious illness. Again, be aware that the virus most likely exists in your environment. It is not a matter of eliminating it, but of keeping it at sufficiently low levels so that it does not overpower your immune system, thereby causing illness.
- Wearing a mask (and staying outside of the “spitting range” of other people) is another layer of precaution. This protects both you and those near you by reducing the amount of virus that is expelled into the air by talking, coughing, or sneezing if you or the person you’re talking to are unknowingly carrying it. Additionally, increasing ventilation in closed areas may help to reduce viral particulates. Again, anything that can be done to reduce the risk of transmission has a cumulative effect when layered with other measures.
- Staying at home and limiting your social network reduces the number of people from whom and to whom you could carry the virus. This layer of protection varies significantly in “thickness” based on how strictly you implement it. For example, you may choose to limit yourself to being only with extended family members, but they may, in turn, have a network of people with whom they continue to maintain contact, who each have their own network of people…to an unending degree, which significantly increases your indirect exposure. Contrarily, you may decide to strategically choose a few people who are willing to reciprocate with very limited/closed social circles, or you may even continue to be exclusive as your immediate family until the situation recedes a bit: each more restrictive step increases the protective nature of this precaution.
- Mental health has to be mentioned because it is so absolutely essential to an optimally functioning immune system. If what you’re doing isn’t working: if you find yourself stressed, anxious, or isolated, please stop and think about how to creatively and safely adjust. We’ve been experiencing this disruption for a long time and the threat isn’t going away anytime soon. If you find that your anxiety mounts when you read the news or scroll your News Feed, for example, find a way to decrease negative input and increase positive input by putting down your phone and picking up an inspiring book. Or, if you’ve been staying home alone to reduce risk, but the loneliness has become overwhelming, consider ways to creatively and strategically expand your support network. Find what works for you, remembering that no one thing will single-handedly protect you, but the cumulative effect of precautions will help keep you, your family, and your community a safer place for everyone.
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of measures that can be “layered” to provide a maximal protective benefit. For example, sunshine, exercise, quality sleep routines, healthy eating, and stress reduction all provide significant boosts to the immune system, thereby increasing the volume of virus particles that your body could handle without getting ill.
In truth, we, as the “Integrous Fam”, are considered a low-risk population for the most part. However, anything that any of us can do to reduce the viral load in our environments has the potential to have a far greater impact. For example, I could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 right now. If I don’t wash my hands frequently, wear my mask, etc., I could easily take it to the store or gas station or another public place in which the higher risk populations also interface. Or I could unknowingly spread it down a line of friends or family members who end up carrying it to healthcare workers. So the responsible and loving action is to do our part to limit what we carry into our broader context, either directly or indirectly through the people with whom we interact.
A word to the wise. This strain of coronavirus has seemed to particularly be the enemy of the elderly. (If you’re not a caretaker, please do not interact with the elderly, and please seriously consider eliminating interaction with their caretakers. Find contactless ways to show your love and support.)
Our hope throughout this season continues to be that we are all able to leverage the challenges, embracing them as unique opportunities to grow into kinder, stronger, more resilient versions of ourselves.