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I'm a UW-Madison health researcher. Here's what I told my friends about the coronavirus.

Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel logo Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel 3/10/2020 Malia Jones, Special to the USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin
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I'm not an expert on the COVID-19 virus by any stretch, but I study epidemics and have general knowledge and training that is applicable. Here are my thoughts on what's happening and what we should do: 

First of all, we are going to see a tremendous increase in the number of cases of coronavirus in the coming days. This is not entirely because of some new pattern in the spread of the disease but rather due to a major change in the requirements to be tested.

Until recently, if you had a flu-like illness but had not recently traveled to China, Italy, South Korea or Iran, you could not be tested. This is just the way health care works; you get tested if you meet the case definition, and the case definition included travel.

Health officials recommend thorough -- and frequent -- handwashing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus. © Pixabay.com Health officials recommend thorough -- and frequent -- handwashing to help stop the spread of the coronavirus.

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Now, you can be tested if you are sick and have a doctor's order to be tested. So expect things to feel a lot more panicky all of a sudden. We will see hundreds or thousands of new cases as testing increases.

Is the panic legitimate?

Sort of. But this is not the zombie apocalypse.

The death rate of 30 deaths per 1,000 cases is probably a wild overestimate. (The denominator is almost certainly wrong because it is confirmed cases, and we only confirm cases when we test for them.)

That said, even at 3 per 1,000 cases, this would be a big deal. By way of comparison, the death rate for seasonal influenza is between 1 and 2 in 1,000 cases. So, yeah, going from roughly 0x to 30x worse than a bad flu year? That's a problem.

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Unlike flu, COVID-19 is not particularly dangerous for children, so that’s some happy news. It is dangerous for older adults and those with lung conditions, so we need to be extra careful to protect those populations from exposure. 

And for millions of Americans, getting any serious illness requiring hospitalization is a major problem because they can't pay for it. Our health care system is probably going to struggle to keep up with it all.

With China basically closed, our global economy is going to take a huge hit; we may feel the shockwaves for years.

Those are real concerns.

What can we do?

Our focus should be on slowing down the spread of this disease. We have a limited health care system, and the virus is spreading very quickly right now. We need to slow it down so that we have time to deal with new cases within the capacity of the system.

Here is my advice:

1. Wash your hands. Wash them so much.

The current best guess is that the new coronavirus is transmitted via close contact and surface contamination. COVID-19 can be transmitted by contact with contaminated surfaces. I have started washing my hands each time I enter a new building and after being in shared spaces (classrooms especially), in addition to the standard practice of washing after using the bathroom and before eating. Use soap and water. Hand sanitizer also kills this virus, as does rubbing alcohol (the main ingredient in hand sanitizer).

There is no need to be obsessive about this. Just wash your hands. A little bit more effort here goes a long way.

2. Don’t pick your nose.

... Or put your fingers in your mouth, on your lips or in your eyes. Surface contact works like this: You touch something dirty — like an elevator button. Virus sticks to your hands. Then you rub your eye. Then you touch your sandwich and put the sandwich in your mouth. Now there is virus in your eyes and mouth. You may be thinking, but I don’t pick my nose because I am an adult. An observational study found that people sitting at a desk working touched their eyes, nose or lips between three and 50 times an hour.

2a. If you're healthy, you don't need a face mask.

a woman talking on a cell phone: Traveling nurse Hannah Curletta waits for her luggage at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Terminal 4 on March 4, 2020. Curletta says she likes wearing a mask to make people more mindful about the coronavirus and cold and flu season. © Cheryl Evans/The Republic Traveling nurse Hannah Curletta waits for her luggage at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport Terminal 4 on March 4, 2020. Curletta says she likes wearing a mask to make people more mindful about the coronavirus and cold and flu season.

There has been a suggestion that face masks actually promote surface contamination because you're always adjusting them — and touching your face. I don’t know if that’s true. But face masks should not be worn by the healthy public right now unless you are the person who is sick and you're on your way to or actually at the doctor's office.

The mask’s function is to prevent spit from flying out of your mouth and landing on things when you cough or sneeze. It flies out of your mouth and is caught in the mask instead. If you are the person who is sick and not on the way to the doctor, go home. Let the people who really need them have the masks. Like doctors, nurses and people who are sick.

The world is running low on masks. If everyone wants a mask so they can feel OK about keeping their Daytona Beach spring Break plans and then hospitals in India can't buy them anymore, shame on us.

Coronavirus does not appear to be airborne in the sense that it doesn't remain floating around freely in the air for a long time, as with measles. You are probably not going to breathe it in, unless someone is coughing in front of you. And if someone is coughing in your face, feel free to tell them to go home and immediately move 6 feet away from them. (Yeah I know, if you have a toddler, this is hard advice to follow.)

3. Sanitize the objects you and lots of other people touch.

a close up of a device: If you can't find hand sanitizer for coronavirus prep, you can make it at home. To make homemade hand sanitizer, use two-thirds cup of 99% rubbing alcohol and one-third cup of aloe vera gel. You can add 8 to 10 drops of essential oil like grapefruit, lavender or peppermint. © USA TODAY If you can't find hand sanitizer for coronavirus prep, you can make it at home. To make homemade hand sanitizer, use two-thirds cup of 99% rubbing alcohol and one-third cup of aloe vera gel. You can add 8 to 10 drops of essential oil like grapefruit, lavender or peppermint.

This is especially true of people outside your family. Think door handles, shared keyboards at schools, and salad bar tongs. Best guesses are that the virus can live on surfaces for two to 48 hours, maybe even longer, depending on the surface, temperature and humidity.

Many common household cleaning products will kill this virus. However, white vinegar solution does not. You can make your own inexpensive antimicrobial spray by mixing 1 part household bleach to 50 parts cold tap water. Spray this on surfaces and leave for 10-30 minutes. Note: This is bleach. It will ruin your sofa.

4. 'Social distancing.' You're going to get so sick of this phrase.

This means keeping people apart from one another (preferably 6 feet apart and sanitizing shared objects). This public health strategy is our next line of defense, and its implementation is what will lead to flights and events being canceled, and schools and even borders closed.

For now, you could limit face-to-face meetings, especially large ones. Zoom is an excellent video conferencing option. If you spend time in shared spaces, see No. 1. Ask about the hygiene plan at your child's school. Keep your children home if they are sick. If you can telecommute, do that a little more. If you are someone's boss and employees could do their jobs remotely, encourage them to do so.

Avoid large gatherings of people if possible, especially if they are in an area with cases or places that lots of people travel to. If you attend group events and start to feel even a little bit sick within two to 14 days, you need to self isolate immediately. Like for a tiny tickle in your throat.

5. All your travel plans are about to be disrupted.

If you are considering booking flights right now, get refundable tickets. Most trip insurance will not cover cancellations due to a pandemic. Look for "cancel for any reason" trip insurance. 

Considerations for risks related to the trip you are planning: How bad would it be if you got stuck where you are going for three to six weeks? How bad would it be to be isolated at home for two to three weeks upon your return? Do you have direct contact with people who are over 70 and/or have lung conditions? Are there cases in your area that you might be carrying to new places and groups of people?

6. If you are sick, stay home.

For the love of all that is holy, stay at home. Your contributions to the world are really just not that important.

7. There is a good chance school will be canceled and nonessential movement limited.

If someone in your family gets sick, your family will almost certainly be isolated for two to three weeks (asked to stay at home). You could start stocking up with essentials for that scenario, but don't run out and buy a years' worth of toilet paper. Again, not the apocalypse. Two weeks' worth of essential items is enough. Refill any prescriptions, check your supply of coffee, kitty litter and jigsaw puzzles.

8. When public health works, the result is the least newsworthy thing ever: Nothing happens.

If this all fizzles out and you start feeling like "Wah, all that fuss for nothing?" send a thank you note to your local department of public health for a job well done. They are working very, very hard right now. Fingers crossed for that outcome.

9. There are some positives here.

Malia Jones smiling for the camera: Malia Jones is a social epidemiologist and demographer by training with a master of public health and a doctorate in public health from UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She works as an assistant scientist in health geography at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies spatial patterns of infectious disease and spatial patterns in other human activities. © Malia Jones Malia Jones is a social epidemiologist and demographer by training with a master of public health and a doctorate in public health from UCLA Fielding School of Public Health. She works as an assistant scientist in health geography at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studies spatial patterns of infectious disease and spatial patterns in other human activities.

All this handwashing could stop flu season in its tracks! We have an opportunity to reduce our global carbon footprint by telecommuting more, flying less and understanding where our stuff comes from.

We can use this outbreak to think about the problems with our health care system. We can use it to reflect on our positions of privilege and implicit biases. We can start greeting each other using jazz hands.

I'm genuinely excited about those opportunities.

There is a lot we don't yet know about this virus. It didn't even exist 90 days ago. So stay tuned; it is an evolving situation. The World Health Organization has a decent FAQ.

May the force be with you. 

Malia Jones is a social epidemiologist and demographer by training. She is an assistant scientist in health geography at the Applied Population Laboratory at the University of Wisconsin-Madison where she studies spatial patterns of infectious disease and spatial patterns in other human activities.

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This article originally appeared on Milwaukee Journal Sentinel: I'm a UW-Madison health researcher. Here's what I told my friends about the coronavirus.

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