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Advice from an Infectious Disease Physician on COVID-19: Act Like You Have It

By: Wouter Rietsema, MD - VP of Population Health & Information Services, Infectious Disease Specialist

As an Infectious Disease Physician and Hospital Administrator, over the past several weeks I have been touting the many ways people can help protect themselves from COVID-19 – hand-washing, avoid touching your face, social distancing. And then it hit me. A better way to look at stopping the spread of the virus is to act like you have it.

So what would I do if I knew I was infected with COVID-19?
I would go home, lock myself in a room and tell everyone else in the house to stay away. I would wear some sort of mask if others came near me because it traps those little infectious droplets from getting free when I cough, talk or breathe. In short, I would do everything I could to avoid giving it to someone else. So what if we all treated ourselves as if  we were infected? Sound silly? Not to me, and here is why:

We know that people with COVID-19 are most infectious during the first 5 days of illness and that infectiousness ramps up really quickly. Often times before people even realize they are sick. How many of us get a new cough and realize we are sick the instant the cough begins? Not many. But with this infection we are very infectious right away, and maybe even a little bit before we feel sick, although we are not sure about that yet. And, there is suspicion that asymptomatic or very minimally symptomatic persons infected with COVID-19 can spread the disease too.

So again, what if I act as if  I am infected? What can I do?  

  1. I can avoid getting close to others. Social distancing means staying 5-6 feet from others which is outside the “droplet range.” This is possible in most places. I went to the grocery store yesterday, and it was reasonably busy, but quite possible to do. Many essential businesses are doing things to assist with this. In my work team, I harp on it all day long.
  2. I can avoid large gatherings, and even with small gatherings of 4-5, spread out. It feels awkward at first – but less so if I imagine I am infected. At work, we have smaller meetings in bigger rooms. And we are using the phone a lot more. At home I can do the same.
  3. I can wear a cloth mask or even a simple bandana when I go where I can’t keep my distance. I want to leave the medical grade masks for our clinical people, but lots of folks are starting to make cloth masks using designs from China. Cloth masks aren’t as good as surgical masks to protect ourselves, but they are quite good at trapping our own droplets before they reach others. I admit, I initially pooh poohed this idea for outside a health care setting, but when I flipped my thinking to imagining myself as a potential source of infection it made sense to me.  

These are all measures I can take to protect my family, friends, workers and community. You can, too.

COVID-19 has no treatment and no vaccine. Our best ammunition is limiting the spread of infection. Imagine you already have COVID-19 and act accordingly. When everyone thinks that way, everyone stays safer.