As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage around the globe, confirmed cases now number over 5 million. Pandemonium and uncertainty rule the lives of many. Although the situation with this novel coronavirus is continually evolving, experts agree that one of the key ways you can keep yourself safe is by maintaining a healthy distance from others.
Unfortunately, the essential practice of social distancing or to use the now preferred term, physical distancing, is now part of everyone’s lives. And for the time being, as the number of infected people continues to increase exponentially, it looks like it’s here to stay.
Vast numbers of people live in apartment buildings, or shared accommodation with partners, family members, or friends. How are we supposed to maintain appropriate physical separation to safeguard health? Especially in the wake of preliminary findings that infected people are most contagious before they are symptomatic.
Living in close quarters certainly presents some challenges. Although bewildering, there are some solid steps you can take to limit the risk of infection.
The measures fall into two broad categories: limiting exposure to airborne respiratory pathogens, and disinfecting potentially cross-contaminated surfaces.
Let’s break it down.
Limiting exposure to airborne pathogens
The majority of experts remain staunch in their conviction that the primary route of infection with SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, is through the inhalation of airborne respiratory droplets.
These droplets range in size from 0.6 to more than 1000 µm. Whenever someone coughs, or sneezes, they generate larger respiratory droplets. The droplets fly through the air for around a meter and then adhere to the law of gravity and fall to the floor. However, recent studies have found they can travel much further.
When you laugh, talk, or even breathe, you generate smaller aerosolized respiratory particles. Experts still disagree on the role they play in COVID-19 infections.
Some research has indicated that bioaerosols could spread SARS-CoV-2. One study found that SARS-CoV-2 remained viable in aerosols for 3 hours.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), we need to maintain a distance of at least 1 meter or 3 feet between us to slow down the rate of COVID-19 infections.
That might seem easier said than done if you live in a small flat or share a bedroom. Consider these practical measures:
- Create separate living spaces
If someone you are living with is sick, try to create a separate area for them. Turning the living room into a bedroom might not be the most comfortable option, but it could be the key to limiting infection.
Whenever there is no other option than to share a bedroom with a sick person, they should sleep on the floor to limit droplet dispersal.
Both inhabitants of the bedroom or another shared space should consider wearing face masks, even during sleep. It is all too easy to cough and sneeze while asleep without using proper cough etiquette. The Center for Disease Control now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public and situations where social distancing is difficult to implement.
- Implement a kitchen rota
In many apartments, a shared kitchen isn’t large enough to allow two people to maintain a sufficient physical distance apart. Create a simple rota so that, for example, three times a day, each person that lives in the apartment can use the kitchen on their own without the risk of sharing any air space.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator
Elevators are small, enclosed spaces. It’s not a wise move to take a packed elevator under current circumstances. You have two options. Instead, you could take the stairs, to remain out of the way of coughs and sneezes. If you have no other choice, wait for an empty elevator.
The same rules apply to any enclosed spaces, such as small shops or offices. If at all possible, wait until they are empty or less crowded before you enter.
- Optimize ventilation
Consider limiting the use of air conditioners. There is some evidence that they can encourage the spread of infectious pathogens.
Open windows and doors to the outside if you can. Use ventilation fans to increase air circulation and provide fresh air. However, keep interior doors closed that separate an infected person from the rest of the household.
The word ‘fomite’ might be another new addition to your pandemic vocabulary. A fomite is an inanimate object, such as a used tissue, clothing, surfaces, or utensils, that’s contaminated with a pathogen.
When you brush against a fomite, the virus can infect your hands. Then, during one of the 23 times an hour you touch your face, the virus enters through your nose, eyes, or mouth. Regular and thorough hand-washing is the cornerstone of disease prevention, along with correct disposal of tissues and proper cough etiquette. Also, consider the following:
- Carry disinfectant wipes with you
Buy a small, travel-sized packet of disinfectant wipes. Carry them with you if you have to leave home to buy essential supplies. Wipe down anything you have to touch, such as door handles, grocery cart handles, elevator buttons, public toilet seats, and flush levers.
- Use approved cleaning products at home
Prepare a diluted bleach spray or use another approved disinfectant around your home. Make sure you regularly disinfect any high-contact surfaces such as tables, countertops, door handles, computer keys, and light switches.
- Allocate separate crockery and cutlery, towels, and bed linen
Try not to share anything at all with a sick person. Keep your eating utensils, towels, facecloths, laundry basket, and other personal items in your separate living area.
The CDC recommends that when you’re changing bed linen, try not to shake it out, which could disperse any pathogens onto other surfaces or the air.
Take special care in the bathroom
The smallest room in the house deserves a separate mention. It not only carries the risk of transmitting infection through respiratory droplets and fomites, but there’s also a third potential mechanism.
Back in 2012, a literature review suggested that a phenomenon known as toilet-plume, which is essentially aerosolized feces, could spread disease. The researchers found that flushing the toilet produces substantial quantities of infectious aerosols that can linger in the air and contaminate the surrounding floor and surfaces.
Recent studies have suggested that people with COVID-19 shed viral particles in their feces. An as-yet-unpublished study found that some infected people only display gastrointestinal symptoms.
It’s essential to close the toilet lid before flushing. Although not a confirmed route of transmission, this information implies that water droplets from toilet flushing could spread potentially infectious viral particles.
The WHO maintains that there is no evidence for the fecal-oral transmission of COVID-19.
Ensure that you regularly disinfect the bathroom and toilet, especially after a sick person has used the facilities.
Stay informed and stay safe
The full extent of COVID-19 transmission methods requires further investigation. In the meantime, wash your hands, regularly disinfect surfaces, ventilate your living space, and keep your distance.
Although this is not an exhaustive list of the measures you could take, these are certainly some practical actions to help keep yourself and others safe from contracting COVID-19 in close living conditions.
Zia Sherrell is a digital health journalist and content creator at Premium Health Content with over a decade of experience covering diverse topics from public health to medical cannabis, nutrition, and biomedical science. Her mission is to empower and educate people by bringing health matters to life with engaging, evidence-based writing.
When she’s not typing madly, Zia enjoys traveling and chasing after her dogs.