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'It's not rocket science': Mass hand washing, not hysteria, will prevent spread of COVID-19

Seriously, just wash your hands.
0309 Shelf Toilet Paper
An employee surveys the empty toilet paper aisle at the Real Canadian Superstore in St. Albert, Alta., on Monday, March 9, 2020. Panic-stricken shoppers across North America are stocking up on toilet paper in the face of a potential global COVID-19 pandemic, but experts say their efforts won't do anyone much good. CLAIRE THEOBALD/Local Journalism Initiative

Forgo the frenzied hoarding of toilet paper, hand sanitizer and masks in the face of a potential COVID-19 pandemic, urge infectious disease experts who say the key to preventing the spread of the novel coronavirus is close at hand. 

Seriously, just wash your hands. 

“The bane of my existence since I’ve been working in infection control has been how to get people to wash their hands,” said Stephanie Smith, director of infection control for the University of Alberta Hospital who has worked in the field of infectious disease control for 13 years, adding, “it’s not rocket science.” 

COVID-19 is a new strain, or “novel” form of coronavirus, a family of viruses that includes things like the common cold, severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). New coronaviruses start in animals and mutate to be transmitted to people. 

The new coronavirus was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December, but has since spread to more than 105,000 people in over 100 countries and territories worldwide. Nearly 3,600 people have died because of COVID-19. 

As of Monday afternoon, there were seven confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Alberta, and reports of store shelves cleared of toilet paper as anxious – if misguided – preppers stock up. 

But will any of this do any good? No, said Deena Hinshaw, Alberta’s Chief Medical Officer of Health, in a situation update on Monday. 

“People are seeing what is happening in other countries and maybe getting worried and starting to go out and buy large amounts of things and that behavior, in some ways, creates the problem that they were afraid of," said Hinshaw. 

Hinshaw said Albertans should always have a 72-hour of supplies on hand ready to respond to any type of emergency, but stockpiling reserves just in case one may be put into isolation over COVID-19 is unnecessary. 

Smith said stocking up on face masks likely won’t help either. 

“Wearing a mask, if they are not symptomatic, will not probably protect them,” Smith said. “This virus is not floating around in the air to be inhaled, wearing a mask all the time is not going to help so don’t go out and buy boxes and boxes of masks.” 

Hinshaw said all the confirmed cases of COVID-19 thus far are travel-related, and there has not yet been a case of person-to-person transmission in Alberta. That being said, there have been cases of person-to-person transmission in other countries. 

"When you look at how these viruses are transmitted, it’s either people touching contaminated equipment or contaminated surfaces or it’s people sneezing on you," Smith said. 

Smith said encouraging mass adoption of proper hand hygiene and respiratory etiquette, such as covering your mouth and nose when you cough or sneeze, rather than mass hysteria, “would really disrupt the chain of transmission.” 

Hand sanitizer is good for those who have to wash their hands with high frequency or for situations where a sink may be out of reach, but Smith said washing your hands with regular soap and water for 20 seconds is the best practice. 

While the message is simple, studies show the majority of Canadians aren’t getting it. 

“It’s a problem, believe me,” Smith said. 

A study published in the journal of Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology in 2014 – where participating patients in an Ontario hospital were tracked electronically over eight months – found people washed their hands after using the bathroom less than 30 per cent of the time. 

Hinshaw said a potential vaccine for COVID-19 could be at least a year away. In the meantime, the best way to protect yourself is through frequent handwashing and avoiding touching your face. 

You can help prevent spreading COVID-19 – or any other respiratory virus – to others by staying home and away from others if you feel ill. 

Anyone returning from travelling outside of Canada are asked to monitor for any symptoms of illness for 14 days after returning and should contact Heath Link by dialing 811 in Alberta should they feel unwell. 

Anyone who has recently travelled to the Hubei province of China, Iran or on the Grand Princess cruise ship – linked to multiple cases of confirmed COVID-19 in Alberta, currently docked in California as governments address a novel coronavirus outbreak onboard – should isolate themselves for two weeks whether they feel ill or not. 

Anyone who has been travelling and does feel unwell is asked to call Health Link for further instructions and not to go to their doctor or medical clinic to seek treatment as a way of avoiding any potential additional transmission. 


Claire Theobald,  Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

About the Author: Claire Theobald, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter

Claire Theobald is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter for Great West Newspapers based in St. Albert, Alta.
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