|MIT students, employees, and MIT Medical patients positively diagnosed with COVID-19|
|In New England||15|
|Outside New England||5|
April 3: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
We have two household cleaners who wear masks and gloves to periodically clean and disinfect our house. They wear these items presumably for their own personal safety. Does their use of the items in any way affect our own safety? Can you give us an opinion on whether we should advise them to eliminate using these items when they enter our house?
The use of house-cleaning services during this time of social distancing raises a number of questions, the most crucial being whether it’s safe to continue these services at all.
Unfortunately, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer. On the one hand, the reason we’re staying at home as much as possible is because we’re trying to lessen our risk of being exposed to the virus, which we know is circulating in the community outside of our doors. And we know that every person who enters our home from the outside increases that risk incrementally.
Based on that reasoning, and taking into account your individual risk of complications from contracting the virus, such as age or underlying medical conditions, it may make sense to suspend house-cleaning services during this time. (However, recognizing that house-cleaners are often immigrants and low-wage workers, you may want to consider continuing to pay them if you can afford to do so.)
On the other hand, if you do continue to use house-cleaning services, it’s important to take precautions that protect both you and the cleaners. Even though they are there to make your house clean, they could still transmit the virus to you, or you to them, if either of you were infected. The protective gear your cleaners are wearing should help to protect everyone, and you definitely shouldn’t tell them to lose the mask and gloves. But you should also make sure that they’re not wearing the same pair of gloves to clean your house that they wore to clean the one before yours. Make sure they don a fresh pair of disposable gloves when they enter your home and change them often while they are working. Stay at least six feet away from both cleaners while they are in your home. And ask them not to come if they feel sick or if you become ill. You might also think about trying to limit the amount of time they spend in your home each time they visit; perhaps more time-consuming cleaning jobs, like washing windows, can wait another month or two.
There’s no way to remove all risks associated with having people come into your house to clean, but being vigilant about following these precautions will mitigate these risks if you continue to use house-cleaning services during this time.
April 2: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
I’ve heard that putting Vicks VapoRub under your nostrils helps to keep germs out. Is this something that might help to keep someone from getting infected with COVID19?
This is a great question! Alas, like so many things in life, there’s a kernel of truth in this rumor, but it won’t work in practice and could actually make you very sick.
The active ingredients in Vick’s VapoRub are camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol, which work together to suppress coughs and produce a warming sensation on the skin that is soothing when you’re sick. In fact, VapoRub catapulted to popularity during the pandemic flu of 1918 and has been a popular over-the-counter remedy for respiratory illnesses ever since.
Camphor, eucalyptus oil, and menthol all have antibacterial properties, so using them to create a protective barrier between your own nose and the respiratory secretions that cause COVID-19 may seem like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, besides being extremely uncomfortable, using VapoRub in your nostrils puts you at risk of developing an extremely ominous-sounding illness called exogenous lipoid pneumonia (ELP), which results from the aspiration or inhalation of fat-like material of animal, vegetable or mineral origin. Long story short, the petrolatum base of VapoRub, when inhaled, can travel to the lungs, where it collects and causes ground-glass opacities — a type of damage also associated with COVID-19.
If you’re feeling ill from any respiratory ailment, using VapoRub on your chest or in a vaporizer may soothe your symptoms. Your healthcare provider can also advise you on other methods to soothe congestion and body aches. But if you’re looking for good ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, we would suggest that you put down the Vick’s, and reach for the hand soap instead.
April 1: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
As the CDC and other national health authorities (Austria, Germany, Singapore) reconsider that everyone wears a mask in public to reduce the spread of the virus from asymptomatic people, what does MIT Medical advise? If mask wearing becomes encouraged, where can I get a mask, and what kind should I buy?
MIT Medical’s approach has always been to follow recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO). At this point, both organizations are still recommending masks for people who are sick, to prevent them from spreading the illness to others, but continue to say that healthy people do not need to wear face masks routinely. The CDC puts it bluntly: “If you are NOT sick: You do not need to wear a face mask unless you are caring for someone who is sick (and they are not able to wear a face mask).”
But you’re right; the CDC may be reconsidering this recommendation. Other experts have also started recommending more routine wearing of masks based on recent reports that a significant number of individuals who are infected with COVID-19 remain asymptomatic and so will continue to go out in public, where they may unwittingly infect others. If asymptomatic people wear masks, the thinking goes, this might help to prevent those who are unknowingly infected from spreading the illness, even if even if face masks may not provide their wearers with significant protection against infection from others.
But none of that changes the fact that face masks for frontline healthcare workers are in short supply, which is an even greater risk to the community. Inadequately protected healthcare workers can easily become infected and can spread the virus while asymptomatic. And once they become sick, they can no longer care for patients. So, while you might consider wearing a mask, we do NOT recommend that you buy commercially made masks that might otherwise go to a healthcare provider.
Rather, we’d like you to consider making your own. You can sew a mask using a pattern or improvise another kind of face covering; the links below are a good place to start, but lots of other patterns and how-to videos are just a web search away. As a general rule, the thicker the fabric the better — for example, a heavy cotton T-shirt would work nicely. Bandanas might seem handy, but they’re typically made of very thin fabric, so if you choose to go the bandana route, fold it to double, triple, or quadruple thickness. If you decide to start wearing a face covering in public, make a couple, so you can put used masks in the laundry right away.
The most important thing to remember is that face coverings are no substitute for all the other precautions we’ve been advising. Wearing a mask, or seeing other people with masks, should not give you a false sense of security. Continue to be vigilant about social distancing, hand washing, and keeping your hands away from your face — whether it’s covered with a mask or not.
Do-it-yourself face masks
March 30, 2020: MIT Medical answers your COVID-19 questions. Got a question about COVID-19? Send it to us at email@example.com, and we’ll do our best to provide an answer.
During the COVID-19 outbreak, blood donation is important for our whole community. I know that we can donate at MGH, but I am also hesitant because of the possible exposure to the virus. Can you please provide advice about, in particular, what special precautions other than the usual ones we should take if we decide to donate?
First of all, thank you for bringing up this important issue. Over the last few weeks, we have heard about the incredible importance of personal protective equipment (PPE) and ventilators, but as some previously scheduled blood drives are being canceled and more people are staying home, the country is now facing the real possibility of a massive blood shortage. If you are healthy with no symptoms of upper-respiratory illness and no underlying medical conditions, and you haven’t traveled recently, then donating blood, platelets, or AB Elite plasma is one of the safest and most effective ways you can help our medical community right now.
According to the Red Cross, employees at every blood drive or donation center follow strict safety protocols that include changing gloves often, wiping down donor-touched areas after every collection, preparing the donor’s arm with an aseptic scrub, using sterile collection sets, and conducting mini-physicals to ensure that each donor is healthy and well. They are also practicing enhanced disinfecting of equipment, providing hand sanitizer for use throughout the donation process, and spacing beds to follow social distancing practices between donors.
You can make an appointment online at one of these local donation centers:
- Children’s Hospital
- Massachusetts General Hospital
- Dana-Farber Cancer Center & Brigham and Women’s Hospital
Or go to the Red Cross website and enter your zip code to book an appointment at a location close to your home. Having donors give blood by appointment ensures that waiting rooms are not full and allows donors to practice social distancing. When you schedule the appointment, ask if you need to bring anything. For instance, the Red Cross is suggesting that platelet or plasma donors bring their own blankets to preserve their supplies and minimize cross-contamination.
When you go to your appointment, take the same precautions you would in going to the grocery store. Keep a six-foot distance between you and other people. Frequently wash your hands or use hand sanitizer, and don’t touch your face. Try to avoid touching frequently handled surfaces like doorknobs and elevator buttons with your hands.
At your appointment, the technician will ask you questions about your health and will take your temperature to make sure you are healthy. It’s important to note that there is no test to screen blood donations for COVID-19, but there also is no evidence that this virus — or any other respiratory illness — is transmissible by blood transfusion. As always, your blood will be drawn with a new sterile needle that will be discarded after use.
Right now, taking even one step outside of the house can feel like a small act of bravery—but with this brave step, you will be saving lives.
March 27, 2020: “I just heard that my colleague is sick. He ended up at a local hospital ER, and the doctor told him to just assume it’s COVID-19 and to self-isolate at home for 14 days but that they’re not going to test.”
We’re hearing some version of this story more and more often these days, and, according to MIT Medical clinicians, it’s only going to become more frequent. “While it may seem counterintuitive, testing becomes less important as a pandemic expands,” says Dr. Shawn Ferullo, MIT Medical’s chief of student health. “That’s because once an infection like COVID-19 is fairly widespread, it makes less sense to expend resources on testing mildly ill people if a positive result will not change treatment or other recommendations.”
Sustained community spread of an infection also renders contact tracing less useful, Ferullo explains, since more infected people add up to more potential sources of infection. And, in the current climate, where most of us have been practicing some form of extreme social distancing for some days or weeks, it’s going to become less and less likely that we’ve been in close contact with a now-sick colleague or other acquaintance within the 14-day incubation period for the virus.
But testing will continue to be vitally important in some cases. “For example, when an individual is sick enough to require hospitalization, it’s important to know for sure if they have the virus, because that impacts the kinds of precautions needed by healthcare workers caring for them,” Ferullo notes. “An individual’s living situation could also determine the necessity of testing. If someone is in a living situation where the risk of rapid community spread is relatively high, such as a dormitory or residence hall, it would be more important to identify and isolate positive cases as early as possible.”
As the pandemic expands, more and more healthcare centers in the US will choose to prioritize dwindling testing supplies for the sickest patients and others most in need of a confirmed diagnosis. As this happens, the number of “presumptive cases” — untested individuals who are assumed to be infected — will keep growing, even faster than the “official” number of confirmed cases. “We’re still several weeks away from the expected peak,” Ferullo warns. “My message to the MIT community is to worry less about testing but to continue being vigilant about staying home and continuing to practice social distancing to the greatest extent possible.”
March 23, 2020: News reports of a recent study on the new coronavirus, published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine, have prompted several questions from members of the MIT community. If COVID-19, can live for up to three days on some surfaces and may remain suspended in the air for as long as a half hour, how safe are home-delivered groceries? Mail? Take-out food?
How about fresh air? “Should I stop walking outdoors, even if I take precautions to be 6 feet away from a passerby?” one person asked us.
When it comes to surfaces, researchers found that the virus lives longest on plastic and steel, up to 72 hours. It lasted only four hours on copper but up to 24 hours on cardboard. But as horrifying as that might sound, it’s important to remember that not all the virus deposited on a given surface remains viable for the same length of time. Even on stainless steel and plastic, the half-life of the virus — the length of time it takes for half the microbes in a given sample to die — was 5.6 and 6.8 hours respectively. On cardboard it was less than four hours.
“While grocery bags, mail, and packages could, theoretically, have small amounts of infectious viral particles on them, the risk is relatively low,” says Medical Director Cecilia Stuopis. “If you’re worried, wash your hands after opening packages or mail. Likewise, any small risk from take-out containers can be mitigated by transferring the food to your own dishes, disposing of the packaging in which it was delivered, and washing your hands before eating.”
The risk from potentially aerosolized virus is also thought to be low. While the research showed the virus remaining airborne longer than originally thought, it also showed that it disperses quickly, meaning that unless you are physically close to an infected person who is coughing or sneezing, you are unlikely to be at risk from viral aerosols.
So, by all means, go for that walk! Exercise and fresh air is important for both physical and mental health, especially at a time when most of us are hunkering down in our homes for so many hours every day. Your risk of becoming infected by a stray bit of airborne virus while out on a walk and maintaining a safe distance from others is minimal.
March 17, 2020: Most of us know by now that wearing a facemask in public is not a good strategy for a healthy person to avoid COVID-19 infection. While those disposable blue or green gauze surgical masks are pretty good at containing the respiratory secretions of people who are sick and coughing, they fit loosely and are not designed to filter or block very small airborne particles. But what about gloves? Will donning a pair of disposable gloves before going out in public reduce your risk of infection?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), COVID-19 is spread primarily through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of nearby people — hence the “social distancing” recommendation to stay at least 6 feet away from other people when you are outside of your own home. It may also be possible to get COVID-19 by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your own mouth, nose, or eyes, though CDC experts do not believe this is the main way the virus spreads.
But wouldn’t gloves protect against this possibility?
“Not likely,” says MIT Medical Infectious Disease Nurse Practitioner Jackie Sherry, ANP-BC. “People who wear gloves often end up touching their faces as often as anyone else,” she says, “and sometimes even more often, because gloves can give people a sense of false security, which makes them them less attentive to good hygiene practices.”
The CDC does not recommend that the general public wear disposable gloves to prevent the spread of COVID-19 or other viruses. However, the agency does recommend wearing disposable gloves if you are caring for someone who is ill, particularly when handling their laundry or potentially coming into contact with their bodily fluids. And, of course, gloves are recommended for medical professionals. Which is another reason not to rush out and buy some, says Sherry. “When the general public buys medical supplies they don’t need, it can lead to shortages for medical professionals who actually need them.”
Looking for legit advice on staying safe and healthy? See Three ways to protect yourself and others from COVID-19.