Guest columnist Merridith A. O’Leary: Tips for minimizing risk as the state reopens during COVID-19 

  • Mark Scheel, who works for the Northampton DPW, hangs a sign last month on Main Street stating that masks must be worn and that violators are subject to a $300 fine.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO/JERREY ROBERTS

For the Gazette
Published: 6/2/2020 10:09:39 AM

As our city, county and state move forward with reopening establishments that have been closed for months to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it will be up to individuals to make informed decisions about what risks they are willing to take. In other words, just because you can now patronize a business you couldn’t two weeks ago does not mean you should.

Being equipped with findings based on scientific research and taking into consideration public health recommendations will help everyone better evaluate relative risk of virus transmission to make the decision that is right for them and their loved ones at a given time. Here are some factors to consider as we enter a new phase of this pandemic.

What do the numbers of confirmed or suspected COVID-19 cases and deaths say about risk?

Decreased numbers understandably leads to feeling relief that we are out of the woods — but that would be a false assumption. Reduced numbers do not mean the virus is slowly vanishing. What data indicates is that the very difficult social-isolation protocols we have lived within for the last two months have been effective.

Hampshire County residents have done an excellent job of respecting these guidelines, which has allowed our region to flatten the curve of this first wave of illness. However, if we reopen and reconnect too quickly, we risk our virus trajectory resembling a roller coaster with multiple peaks rather than a slow gentle hill. As restrictions are lifted in the phases outlined by Gov. Charlie Baker, our chances and rates of infection will increase.

Public health professionals have determined our state’s health care system will have the capacity to handle infections that occur as a result of these loosened restrictions. That capacity relies on the following assumptions:

■Testing being available for all who are exposed or feel ill with possible COVID-19 signs and symptoms. That testing is currently available in our region.

■People using that testing.

■People following public health guidelines with regard to quarantine and isolation.

■Continued vigilant hand washing, social distancing and face covering.

What things should I consider when leaving my house?

What we know so far about COVID-19 — and keep in mind we are continually learning more and refining what we know — is there are three main factors to consider when evaluating risk. The chance of contracting COVID-19 during a social interaction is not an absolute “if this, then that” formula. We all have the ability to mitigate risk by taking the following three factors into account.

Distance: How far apart you are from others. The farther apart we are, the more likely viral particles expelled by one person will fall to the ground rather than landing on you (sneaking into your nose and mouth).

Duration: How long you’re in proximity to someone. The longer an interaction, the more likely enough infectious particles will reach you. It is also important to consider the number of people you are interacting with for a substantial duration daily, as each new interaction poses its own risk.

Ventilation/air circulation: Are you inside or outside? The outdoors has been shown to greatly reduce transmission risk due to increased variable airflow and environmental factors that help to destabilize the virus. You can also think of ventilation and circulation when it comes to wearing a face covering. When you wear a face covering, the virus has poor circulation potential and will have increased barriers to transmission and infection.

Our actions and the choices we make over the next few days and weeks will determine what the summer looks like for all of us. So I’d like to give you a few ideas for how to make your likely socialization safer.

What should people keep in mind as they return to work?

Health experts strongly recommend telecommuting if at all possible. For those who must return to the workplace, follow all of workplace guidelines to keep yourself and your coworkers healthy. If you are sick, stay at home, practice good personal hygiene, cover your cough and sneeze with a tissue or your elbow, maintain social distance and wear a face covering when you cannot. While it may be tempting to chat over cubicle walls to catch up with your colleagues, please resist the temptation.

How can people evaluate whether to go on summer vacations?

Studies show that pandemic life is safer outdoors. When outdoors, light and wind can quickly dilute and destabilize the virus. If a person nearby is sick, the wind will scatter the virus, potentially exposing nearby people but in far smaller quantities that are less likely to be harmful. However, please take into account and respect state quarantine guidelines. As it currently stands, if you leave Massachusetts, you will be requested to quarantine for 14 days upon return (this means not leaving your property unless for medical care.)

Vacations that involve camping, hiking or recreational water activities such as swimming in a lake, river or beach would carry low transmission risk as long as it is possible to maintain good social distance on the trails and out of the water. Probably the biggest risk for summer water recreation is crowds, such as a crowded pool locker room, dock or beach, especially if coupled with limited physical distancing or prolonged proximity to others. The most concentrated sources of virus in such an environment will be the people hanging out at the pool, not the pool itself.

What factors should be considered when deciding to have backyard gatherings?

The key to safely enjoying the company of friends in a backyard gathering is to engage in discussions with friends and family ahead of time about their priorities and expectations so you are all on the same page. To socialize safely, remember to keep your distance. Maintaining appropriate physical distancing between households is still important. Brief close-range contact is less of a concern than sustained contact.

So, the recommendation is to wear masks; don’t share food; stage items in such a way that you can maintain least 6 feet of distance from all non-household members.

These outside gatherings should be small in number, and there should be a way to dine with some distance between non-household members. Guests should bring their own food and chairs. Create an outdoor hand wash or sanitizer station so guests can clean their hands when they arrive.

All decisions about how we reenter the world with greater social interactions might change depending upon what’s going on with the virus in your community at the time, as well as your unique family situation. As we open up our social circles and patronize businesses, be sure to do so in a mindful, safe and respectful way, keeping ourselves, employees, other patrons and our friends and family as safe as possible.

Good decisions may seem like moving targets as recommendations keep changing. Flexibility is key. Always reserve the right to change your mind when circumstances change.

Merridith O’Leary is the director of public health for the city of Northampton.
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