Can I protect myself from catching the coronavirus? That's my question as cases mount in the United States.
So I spent one day last week trying to be aware of doing all the right things. I mean, how hard can it be to wash your hands a lot and avoid crowds?
I followed guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization. Then I asked epidemiologists to grade me. Scroll to the end of the comic to find out how I did.
What the epidemiologists said
Melissa Nolan, a professor of epidemiology at the Arnold School of Public Health at the University of South Carolina, says my effort to document my hygiene habits during the outbreak was a worthy endeavor.
"This is a good exercise to make you notice your personal hygiene and have an appreciation for it," she says. "It can make you see how important it is to prevent exposure, especially around populations vulnerable to coronavirus," including elderly people and those who are sick.
After I recounted my day to Nolan, she gave me an "A for effort, but a B- overall."
"The most egregious things you did was being in close quarters with people," says Nolan — like eating at the salad bar, going to the movie theater and getting in a taxi or a ride share.
"Be conscious of the potential ways you could get exposed and where there's a high potential for transmission of the disease," she says. At the salad bar, for example, even though workers may be wearing gloves, eventually the workers will use those gloved hands, out of habit, to touch their faces. And while salad bars have splash guards on the side of the customer, there usually isn't one on the side of the worker interacting with the food. Current evidence shows that the coronavirus can live on surfaces for hours to days. And it doesn't help that what are served at salad bars are moist, raw foods where pathogens in general thrive, she says.
At the movies, Nolan said that no, breathing into my shirt would not have helped me prevent infection if the woman who sneezed behind me had the coronavirus: "If she had high amounts of virus coming out of that sneeze — via aerosolized particles from your lungs being breathed out — you would have to be fitted with an N95 respirator to protect yourself."
Dr. Deliang Tang, a molecular epidemiologist at Columbia University's Mailman School of Public Health, gave me an A-. Like Nolan, he says that going to the movies was probably not a good idea (although to be fair, lots of other people were unafraid — the theater was packed). "We are generally recommending the public to not go to any gathering places at this moment," he says. "It would have been better if you just stayed home."
CDC guidelines state that you can get COVID-19 from "close contact" with someone infected with the virus. That means being within 6 feet of an infected individual for a prolonged period of time. Being in an enclosed space with the driver of a ride share, for example, is considered "close contact," says Nolan.
Nolan says I should have just walked. (Although the 50-minute trek from the office to the salad place would have been one long walk!)
Tang says I did a good job of assuming that every surface I touched at the coffee shop, at the office and in public was contaminated. "In lab practice, we consider every single biological sample as contagious — it's to help protect lab personnel," he explains. "So you considering every surface as dirty as a precautionary measure and washing your hands all the time — it's good discipline."
And when I paused during the day to wipe down high-touch surfaces as the CDC recommends — objects such as your phone, your desk and the keyboard that you and others you work with touch every day — that was a smart move to get rid of pathogens, he says.
The epidemiologists shared some advice that will help me in the weeks ahead. I asked Nolan about opening doors — especially handles that you have to pull. How do you do that without contaminating your hands? Is there a better part of the handle to pull from? She says to use a paper towel.
She says that using an object like a pen to dial a phone or scratch my face was a good idea — unless I then put that pen in my mouth (an unfortunate habit for many anxious souls).
I asked Nolan what to do if you don't have hand sanitizer — which was sold out at stores I visited. Her alternative was simple: Just wash your hands with soap and water.
How about using my knuckles to touch things? Was that better than using my fingers? "Hypothetically, your hands — the palm side — are more moist [because of sweat]," says Nolan. "It's possible for viral particles to stay alive longer there. And you don't technically use your knuckles, which are drier, to touch your face."
Peter Krause, a senior research scientist in epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, gave me an A+ for "making me laugh," he says. "How you touched the handle [from the bottom], how you ate the muffin [without hands] — the general concepts are right."
"I have to say," he adds, "you're describing exactly what I do."
Malaka Gharib is an NPR editor and the author and illustrator of I Was Their American Dream: A Graphic Memoir, about being first-generation Filipino Egyptian American.