COVID-19 and Distancing - Should I Stay Home?

Blog entry
Authored by
22 March, 2020

Like a lot of people, I'm not always sure what to do in any given situation to avoid getting or transmitting the COVID-19 virus.

I came up with a few questions that, I think, are helping me avoid unnecessary risks.

Note: I wrote this to share with people who, like me, might be a little too laid-back about preventing COVID-19 transmission. If you are already anxious or over-anxious about the virus, please close this window, NOW, and go look at comforting cute animal videos or calming pictures of trees.

If you aren't especially anxious about the virus, and are having trouble deciding when to avoid other people, please read on.

Also note: I am not a doctor or an epidemiologist. I am a person on the internet who has an opinion. Please listen to the World Health Organization; they know what they're talking about.

So - when I'm trying to decide whether to go out somewhere in the age of community spread, here's my thought process:

Ask yourself: What if I'm already infected?

So here's the main thing: nobody knows if they're already infected.

I'm writing this on Sunday night, March 22. This morning, Senator Rand Paul tested positive for COVID-19. He had no symptoms, and he had no known direct contact with anyone who was infected. He had no reason at all to get tested - except that he travels a lot and has been to a lot of events.

And he tested positive. He has the virus.

Like the senator, I have no symptoms, and I have no known contact with anyone who's known to be infected. I don't even travel much or go to a lot of events, so my risk is even lower than his. But I haven't been isolated for the past three months; I've gone to the grocery store, and I've gone to restaurants before the state issued the take-out only directive.

It's entirely possible that I'm infected.

Until we have a vaccine, it will remain entirely possible that I'm infected - because I'm still going to go to the grocery store once in a while.

So the only responsible way for me to behave is to act like I AM infected.

If I were to get together with friends, I would be risking giving them the virus.

If I were to go chat with neighbors, I would risk giving them the disease.

The only safe, conscientious thing for me to do is to avoid as much contact with everyone as I reasonably can.

What if it spreads way more easily than I think?

We've heard that the virus can spread through droplets expelled when people cough - or exhale. (The World Health Organization: How does COVID-19 spread?) We've heard about staying 6 feet apart - which is almost certainly good advice - but I've definitely gotten hit by flecks of spit when people were talking enthusiastically, and I'm not honestly sure how far my own spit travels when I get excited and start talking up a storm.

And I know we're not supposed to touch our faces, and I TRY to be really good about not touching my face - but the truth is, once in a while I catch myself doing it anyway, and I can't honestly swear that if I went and visited friends, or family, that they wouldn't slip up and accidentally touch their face, possibly after touching something in the room I'd accidentally coughed on. If I coughed or talked or breathed some of my virus into the air, I have no way of being sure that it wouldn't land on something someone in the room would touch - and then I would be passing on the virus.

The only way for me to reduce the risk of giving it to other people is to stay completely away from other people as much as I reasonably can.

And what if I'm really bad at estimating 6 feet?

This isn't even a "what if" for me - I KNOW I'm really bad at estimating distance. Quick: how long is your arm? I just had to measure - mine is about 2 feet. So to stay six feet away from someone, I'd have to be a full arm's length away - plus another - plus ANOTHER. Their arm, my arm, and another imaginary arm in the middle.

I have seen a lot of people attempting to maintain six feet of distance this week. None of them were actually six feet apart.

I don't want to be in the position of misjudging six actual feet of distance and actually getting too close and accidentally giving someone the virus.

The only way for me to reduce the risk of giving it to other people is to stay completely away from other people as much as I reasonably can.

What if I just don't care?

These three questions are plenty for me; they remind me that this is something to take very, very seriously. I don't want to give anyone the virus. I can't know whether I'm infected. I have to do my best to stay away from other people.

I have read stories about a few people who just don't seem to care if they transmit the virus to anyone else. I hope it's because they (mistakenly) think they can't be carriers; I hope they're not just heartless jerks who don't care if they give someone a potentially deadly virus.

But for the handful of people who aren't acting like they care if they infect someone else, these questions also popped into my head:

What if infections were traced to you - and you found out who got sick, and who died, after getting it from you?

Supposing there were some way to trace the virus backwards, and figure out the original person who got each person infected.

(I don't think this technology exists, and I don't think it's likely to exist anytime soon; but there are some attempts to trace carriers now, and I think it's pretty likely that if, for example, the President or Vice-President had tested positive, people would be pretty likely to connect that infection to the press secretary from Brazil who has tested positive.)

What if, some day in the future, you got a letter listing the dates and times when you transmitted the virus to other people - along with the outcome? What if you got to see how much money those people lost due to their medical bills? What if you got a list of people who got sick, and people who died, after getting the virus from you?

Since I'm assuming I'm infected, it's very possible that I have infected other people without realizing it. My job now is to avoid infecting anyone else.

Anyone reading this could be carrying the virus right now, and probably most people reading this have been in close contact with other people in the past few days.

By the time the pandemic plays out, many, many thousands of us will turn out to have transmitted the virus to others.

Final question:

What if I'm already infected - and everyone else knew?

You can't tell if someone has COVID-19 by looking at them. But what if, sometimes, you could?

Or better yet - if you knew you were infected, what if you made sure everyone around you knew, so they could make their own decisions about whether to be around you?

If you were having a small get-together with a few friends who aren't sick, would they still want to get together if they knew you had the virus?

If you were scheduling a play date for your kids, would the other parents send your kids' friends if they knew you had the virus?

What if you made yourself a face mask out of a plain sheet of paper and a rubber band, and wrote "I PROBABLY HAVE THE VIRUS" on it in big letters, and stuck it over your mouth where everyone could see it?

Would that make a difference in how you interacted with other people - and how they interacted with you?

At the very least, it would help keep you from touching your face.

What if it's not that easy?

Staying away from most other people most of the time is pretty easy for me. I know it might not be easy for you.

I am incredibly lucky here: I've worked from home for years, so I don't have anyone pressuring me to come into an office and risk spreading the virus to anyone else. I don't have to work in a public-facing job. (I am so worried for grocery store workers, and so grateful for the work they're doing. I hope they all get hazard pay.) I don't have commitments outside the house that require my physical presence.

I know it's not that easy for a lot of people.

I wanted to share this just to give other people some ideas about all those situations that feel like grey areas. Is it okay to have play dates for my kids? Is it okay to get together for a small dinner with a few good friends if none of us have symptoms and we all sit somewhat apart? What if my boss is pressuring me to work, even in a hot spot? (Reading an online post about someone with an unreasonable employer prompted me to write this.)

For myself, I am trying to act as if I do already have the virus, and I could infect anyone at any time. It's not stopping me from going to the grocery store, because I still need to eat - but it IS stopping me from going there any more often than I have to, and it's reminding me to be as careful as I possibly can be to avoid spreading the virus to others while I'm there.

The virus has already killed thousands of people. It will kill thousands more.

If I, personally, can save one of those lives by being a little more careful - well, I will have saved somebody's life.

And knowing that is helping me make better choices.