Coronavirus: Front-line Fighters

Keep your hands clean and carry on: 25 questions about the coronavirus answered

Washing your hands with soap and water will get rid of the virus if it is on your hands.
Washing your hands with soap and water will get rid of the virus if it is on your hands.PHOTO: ST FILE

Should you close all windows to prevent a spread of the coronavirus? Can a flu jab protect you from the virus? Answers to these questions and more here:

PERSONAL HYGIENE

1. Q Why do I have to wash my hands frequently?

A The virus is spread via droplets, and hands may touch surfaces contaminated with the virus. If you touch your eyes, nose or mouth with your contaminated hands, you can transfer the virus to yourself.

Washing your hands with soap and water will get rid of the virus if it is on your hands.

2. Q Should I just wear gloves?

A You can do so, but this is not practical. Also, if your gloves are dirty and you touch your face, you can still transfer the virus to your face.

3. Q Why must I cover my mouth or nose with a tissue when coughing and sneezing?

A The virus spreads via droplets. Covering your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing prevents the spread of germs and viruses.

If you sneeze or cough into your hands, you may contaminate objects or people that you touch.

 
 
 

4. Q Masks can protect us. Why do the Government and the World Health Organisation say we should wear masks only when we are sick?

A Dr David Carrington, a clinical virologist at St George's, University of London, told the BBC that surgical masks for the public are not foolproof because they are too loose, have no air filter and leave the eyes exposed.

Also, you may touch your mask with dirty hands, for example, when you remove or put on a mask when eating or drinking. The longer you wear one, the less effective it becomes, especially if it becomes damp from your breath.

Wearing masks may give a false sense of security, and people may become lax about personal hygiene, such as washing their hands frequently.

Instead, people are advised to wash their hands thoroughly and regularly throughout the day and to avoid touching their eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands.

5. Q I would rather wear a mask anyway, so when should I do so?

A Wear a mask if you are unwell and need to go out to see a doctor, or if you are taking care of someone suspected of having the coronavirus.

If it makes you feel better, you can wear a mask if you are going to ride the MRT or be in a cab for a while, said Professor Wang Linfa, director of the emerging infectious disease programme at Duke-National University of Singapore (NUS) Medical School. "If you're worried about getting the virus in the MRT, then you can wear a mask, but if you're walking on the streets, there's no need to," he said.

If you want to wear a mask, make sure you wash your hands before putting it on, and every time you touch it, as you could transfer germs from your dirty hands to the mask.

Also make sure that you are wearing the mask properly. It should fit snugly against your face with no gaps to allow the viruses to get through. Change the mask when it becomes soiled or damp, as this reduces its effectiveness.

You will have to be prepared to wear masks for at least a few weeks, as the coronavirus problem is not likely to disappear any time soon.

6. Q Besides washing my hands regularly, what else can I do to protect myself?

A You can avoid sharing personal items with others. For instance, don't share utensils and drinking glasses at mealtimes.

7. Q How about touching doorknobs and lift buttons?

A Doorknobs and lift buttons are "high-touch" points, which means that many people would have touched them in a short period of time. So it is possible to get infected by touching a dirty doorknob or lift button.

This is why health experts keep emphasising the importance of hand hygiene. You can wash your hands or use a hand sanitiser after touching these spots, and before you eat, for instance.

Some people use a tissue to press lift buttons, while others use a pen with a cap, a tip that Prof Wang said he learnt from social media. Remove the ink cartridge before using it, and cap it afterwards.

8. Q Will I catch the virus if I go near an infected person who does not have any symptoms?

A Dr Carmen Dolea, head of the International Health Regulations Secretariat at the World Health Organisation (WHO), said there is no such thing as a truly asymptomatic patient.

Even if the patient is not showing symptoms like coughing or sneezing, he may still have clinical symptoms like fever. "For somebody to transmit the virus, they have to have some kinds of symptoms," she said in a recent video.

Professor Tan Chorh Chuan, chief health scientist at the Ministry of Health, said the risk of asymptomatic transmission is still unclear, though it is possible that a patient could be shedding viruses through a sniffle or his hands, which have come into contact with respiratory secretions.

Prof Tan suggested reducing hand contact by not shaking hands, and by using other forms of greeting. "Clean your hands frequently, especially after you touch a lot of surfaces," he said.

Most importantly, people who are sick should stay at home, avoid crowded places and wear a mask if they need to go out, as this reduces the risk for everyone else, he said.

9. Q What is the safe distance to keep from an infected person?

A The WHO advises a distance of at least one metre.

If someone infected with the coronavirus coughs within one metre of you, you could breathe in the virus through the droplets in the air.

GOING OUT

10. Q Is it safe to use public transport and to take taxis or private-hire cars?

A Private-hire car and taxi companies are providing masks for their drivers and encouraging them to disinfect their vehicles frequently.

Drivers have been advised to wind down their vehicles' windows when ferrying passengers with flu-like symptoms, and after every completed trip, to improve ventilation in their vehicles.

They have also been advised to take their temperature twice a day, once before starting work and at another time in the course of the day.

Trains and buses will be disinfected more regularly, especially touch points such as grab poles, overhead handles and seats.

Surfaces at MRT stations as well as bus interchanges will be cleaned and disinfected.

 
 
 

11. Q In a cab, should I or the driver wear a mask?

A You should, if you're unwell.

Surgical masks have been given to cab and private-hire car drivers, but these are for them to offer to passengers who are unwell.

Prof Wang suggested that passengers wind down the window for a while, avoid touching anything, and sanitise their hands after exiting the cab.

12. Q Is it safe to go shopping?

A While it is good practice to avoid crowded areas where possible, shopping activities can still continue if proper hygiene standards are followed closely.

Malls have stepped up measures to regularly disinfect common areas, and have made hand sanitisers available to shoppers.

Some malls have also ceased all public events, such as workshops and mass exercise activities.

13. Q Is it safe to stay in a hotel?

A Yes, hotels have stepped up sanitation measures, including thorough cleaning of common areas.

14. Q Is it safe to fly? Is the plane cabin air clean?

A The air inside modern airplanes is as clean as in hospital operating rooms, as the air is changed many times through high-efficiency particulate air filters that remove 99.97 per cent of airborne microbes, including viruses and bacteria, according to the International Air Transport Association.

However, passengers are at risk when there is a sick person on board, especially when the person is seated close to them. Transmission is also possible through objects such as toilet door handles that the sick person has touched.

The best thing to do in a plane cabin is to practise proper hand hygiene and coughing etiquette, and to keep a distance from people who are coughing or have other respiratory symptoms, said Dr Dolea.

AT WORK

15. Q Should I stay away from work?

A Employees with a recent travel history to China are placed on a 14-day leave of absence, where they are to remain at home as much as possible, avoid crowded places and minimise contact with others.

All staff who are feeling unwell are advised to rest at home and to seek medical assistance.

Companies have also split up their staff so that they work at separate sites to reduce the risk of cross-infection.

If you are sharing a workspace, you may want to clean shared work surfaces, including tables, phones, keyboards and computer screens.

AT HOME

16. Q Should I close all my windows to prevent a spread of the virus?

A No. Infectious disease experts suggest keeping windows and doors open to ventilate rooms. This will reduce the spread of diseases.

Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang, programme leader for infectious diseases at the NUS Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health, said: "Enclosed spaces, where they are less humid and cooler, could help to spread respiratory diseases."

Prof Tan said most studies indicate that viruses "don't persist well in hot, humid environments".

"Hot and humid, meaning over 30 deg C, and with humidity levels of over 80 per cent," he said.

 
 
 

17. Q How can I disinfect my home?

A Wear a surgical mask and disposable gloves, and use a bleach solution or an appropriate disinfectant to clean all surfaces.

Use disposable cloths or rags to wipe toilet surfaces and frequently touched areas. Refrain from using a spray, as this could create splashes that can further spread the virus.

Keep the windows open for ventilation, and avoid touching your face and eyes at all times.

PROTECTING THE YOUNG AND OLD

18. Q What can the elderly, children and others who may have weaker immunity do?

A Older people, and people with pre-existing medical conditions such as diabetes and heart disease, appear to be more vulnerable to becoming severely ill with the virus.

Dr Edwin Chng, medical director of healthcare provider Parkway Shenton, said that these people should avoid unnecessary visits to clinics and hospitals as far as possible. This is to reduce exposure to bugs, as those with a weaker immune system are more susceptible to infections.

They should stay indoors as much as possible, and avoid crowded areas and people who are unwell. Finally, they should wear a surgical mask if they are unwell, and practise good hand hygiene at all times.

19. Q Children have weaker immunity. Shouldn't they wear masks?

A Masks are generally not needed for people who are well, including children, said Associate Professor Thoon Koh Cheng, head and senior consultant of the infectious diseases service at KK Women's and Children's Hospital. He said a child can wear a well-fitted child-size mask when he has a fever, cough or runny nose, or when he is recovering from an illness.

To be effective, change the mask regularly, or when it is soiled or wet. Wash hands with soap and water after disposing of the soiled mask properly into a bin, he said.

20. Q What precautions should I take to protect my children if they are ill?

A The advice for unwell children is the same for adults. People who are unwell should seek medical attention promptly, stay at home to rest and avoid crowds, said Prof Thoon.

21. Q What are the chances of children getting the virus?

A Prof Thoon said there have been fewer cases of children infected with the virus compared with the adult population. "Based on what we know so far, if the virus infects a healthy child, he or she should make a good recovery with good medical support," he said.

22. Q If there is a suspected or confirmed infection at a pre-school, should I pull my child out of the school?

A Dr Piotr Chlebicki, an infectious disease specialist at Mount Alvernia Hospital, said there is no need to do anything, unless the infected person had spent time playing with all the children in the classrooms.

JABS AND MEDICATION

23. Q Can we use antibiotics to prevent and treat this coronavirus?

A Antibiotics do not work against viruses. They are effective only against bacterial infections.

 
 

24. Q Should I get a flu jab?

A A flu vaccine will not help protect you against the coronavirus. There is currently no vaccine to protect against coronaviruses.

However, people have been rushing to get flu jabs to prevent them from getting influenza in this outbreak. Most clinics here have run out of the Northern Hemisphere flu vaccines due to overwhelming demand, said Dr Chng. He added that the Southern Hemisphere flu vaccines are expected to be available in Singapore by the middle of next month.

Flu vaccines are updated twice a year in accordance with the Northern and Southern Hemispheres' winter seasons. Flu tends to strike year-round in Singapore, unlike in temperate countries where it tends to peak at the start of winter.

25. Q Will I risk an infection by going to a buffet dinner?

A There is currently no evidence that the coronavirus is associated with the consumption of food. Food at a buffet that is kept warm, above 60 deg C, is safe to eat as the heat would render the virus not infectious, said Professor William Chen, the Michael Fam chair professor and director of Nanyang Technological University's Food Science and Technology Programme in a recent AskST column.

 

It is not the food but the group environment of a buffet that may result in a higher risk of transmission, as the disease is spread through close contact with infectious people as well as contact with the virus on a surface and then touching your face.

• Additional reporting by Amrita Kaur and Cheryl Tan

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on February 16, 2020, with the headline 'Keep your hands clean and carry on'. Print Edition | Subscribe