- The coronavirus is surging across the US and Europe – again.
- Part of this trend is an inevitable sign of the changing seasons: As temperatures have dropped, more people have gone indoors to share space (and germs).
- There are many more things people are not doing well at, on an individual level, to prevent COVID-19 spread.
- Here are nine of the clearest culprits driving the uptick today, which you can do something about.
- Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.
Coronavirus case counts are surging to never-before seen highs across the US and Europe.
“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt â€” It’s not a good situation,” America’s leading disease expert, Dr. Anthony Fauci, recently told the Washington Post.
The numbers of new daily cases being tallied now exceeds 4,500 in at least five US states. In addition to the recent uptick in the US, surges are also being seen around the world, with dramatic upswings recorded in the UK, France, Italy, Spain, Switzerland, and India in recent days.
But spotting a chin mask at the park or someone not spending a full 30 seconds scrubbing their hands shouldn’t be your greatest concerns.
“This now is going to take a lot of personal responsibility, and a lot of personal risk calculation by individuals, which we tend to not be very good at,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease expert and senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Centre for Health Security told Insider.
Here are 9 of the biggest mistakes that leading health experts say we should be thinking about in our own routines as cases rise.
Mistake 1: Having lots of small gatherings with people you know
The coronavirus spreads well in places where people breathe, eat, laugh, sing, and talk together for extended periods of time. Increasingly, as it gets colder in the Northern Hemisphere, that is happening in people’s homes.
“If you look around the country now, many of the infections are in small family and friend gatherings, such as dinner parties and small social gatherings,” Dr. Fauci said in a recent interview. “These innocent family and friends gatherings: six, eight, 10 people come together in someone’s home, you get one person who’s asymptomatic and infected, and then all of a sudden four or five people in that gathering are infected.”
Most people, by this point, know larger gatherings such as Halloween parties, crowded political rallies, or large weddings are high-risk events. But intimate gatherings don’t necessarily have the same stigma attached.
“Even a small gathering can be a place where the virus can spread, and people are much more likely to not be as mindful in those situations, because they’re in a small group,” Adalja said. “So they may not wash their hands as much. They may not be wearing their masks. They may not really think about social distancing as being as important when they’re around people that they’re friends with, or their family members.”
Mistake 2: Not quarantining for 2 weeks when you’ve been exposed to the virus
If Mike Ryan, the World Health Organisation’s executive director of health emergencies, had one pandemic “golden wish” that could be granted right now it would be this: “Making sure that each and every contact of a confirmed case is in quarantine for the appropriate period of time so as to break chains of transmission.”
“I do not believe that has occurred systematically anywhere, and particularly in countries that are experiencing large increases now, Ryan said during a WHO press conference in October.
The US, in general, has been doing poorly at this.
The country’s leadership has not been setting the best example. President Donald Trump and Vice President Mike Pence have both skirted quarantine rules in recent months when they have been exposed to the virus, potentially putting others at risk.
In other parts of the world, quarantine has been taken more seriously, helping to quash outbreaks before they spiral out of control.
Mistake 3: Assuming that because you’re at home, you’re safe from the virus
A recent CDC study found that 53% of people who were living with someone who’d tested positive for the virus, and who then self-administered daily COVID-19 tests, were sick themselves within a week.
It makes sense that people would be getting infected easily from those they live with when you consider that the coronavirus spreads easily between people who are indoors, gathered close together, in poorly-ventilated spaces.
Mistake 4: Getting tested for the virus as soon as you’ve been exposed
If you go rush out to get a test right after you’ve been in contact with someone who’s sick, you will almost certainly test negative.
That’s because it takes some time for your body to develop an infection. Health pros typically recommend waiting around five to seven days after an exposure to go in for your test.
“This idea that we’ve been exposed, and we’re just going to wait around [for a test] to see if we’re positive is a bad idea,” Virginia Tech professor and public health expert Lisa Lee, who spent 14 years previously working at the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, recently told Insider. “Immediately separate yourself from everyone else. And do that for 14 days.”
Mistake 5: Reasoning that because something is allowed, it must be a safe thing to do
Just because something’s allowed during the pandemic doesn’t necessarily mean it’s low-risk.
“Really, it is up to individuals to make safe decisions to prevent transmission,” Dr. Ben Weston, medical director of the COVID-19 Unified Emergency Operations Centre in Milwaukee County, Wisconsin â€” one of the nation’s coronavirus hotspots â€” told Insider.
One sobering example: a new study from Stanford economists suggests President Trump’s rallies during the pandemic have “likely led to more than 700 deaths.”
Mistake 6: Thinking of coronavirus precautions as single-action items that only need to be done one at a time
Because we don’t have a good vaccine or treatment for the virus yet, there is no one-and-done solution to prevent us from getting or surviving it.
Weston says one common “confusion” people still have is that they don’t think in terms of “layers of protection.”
“One layer is wearing a mask,” Weston said. “Another layer is physical distancing. Another layer is open air environments, ideally outdoors. Another layer is how long you’re actually in a relatively close context situation.”
Weston says instead of thinking of these measures as individual precautions, we should remember that they have a “multiplicative effect.”
“People think, well, if I go to the grocery store, and I’m wearing a mask, I’m OK, so I can stand close to somebody in the grocery store line,” Weston said, stressing people should still be distancing and wearing masks when outside at places like farmer’s markets â€” even if they might’ve recently tested negative. “I think what gets lost is that each of these layers of protection is critical on their own, but they don’t really work that well unless you put them all together.”
Mistake 7: Ignoring that ‘it’s just going to be different’ for a while
Nations don’t have to lock down to win against the coronavirus. But countries do have to take the outbreak seriously.
In South Korea, infectious disease expert and Professor Yae Jean Kim credits “participation, cooperation, and compliance of the public” in successfully batting back COVID-19 infections. (That’s in addition to the country’s robust testing and tracing system.)
“We encouraged wearing of masks from the early phase of the pandemic, and avoided mass gathering later on,” Kim told reporters during a WHO press conference on Monday. “However, we did not lock down the country or close the border, but only performed variable degrees of social distancing, according to the epidemiological situation. Although we had a second wave in some metropolitan areas mid-August and September, the outbreak was controlled with the various collective efforts.”
Part of the reason that Koreans took the virus so seriously, Kim said, is that they remember the MERS outbreak in 2015, which killed 38 people.
“Their mindsets are also changed since then, and [they] know that public cooperation and compliance is important for the safety of everybody.”
Mistake 8: Assuming your friends and family are as careful (or as reckless) as you are
Do you really know how careful your friends and family are being, and whether they’re symptom free? Maybe not.
One recent psychological study suggests it’s fairly common for people to be dishonest about their pandemic precautions, and even try to hide it when they’re sick.
For the study, researchers asked more than 400 people, ranging in age from their 20s to their 80s, just how truthful they’d been during this pandemic, and they found out lying about precautions and symptoms is pretty common.
One in four people in their study said they’d not been entirely honest with others about how much they social distanced, while more than half of the people surveyed who’d had the virus said they’d concealed their symptoms from others.
“It’s important to not necessarily blame people who are concealing this information, but to understand the barriers that are there from preventing them from telling the truth,” study co-author Alison O’Connor said in a release when her study came out in August. “Sometimes, psychologically, we may feel safer to conceal or lie about something to protect ourselves.”
Mistake 9: Ignoring what the virus is doing where you live
If there are a lot of cases being diagnosed in your area, your risk of infection will be high. When that’s the case, you should take extra precautions, avoiding gatherings, and exercising an even more cautious distance than six feet apart when you do venture out.
This is, admittedly, easier in some places than others. In South Korea, for example, there is a daily press release with updated virus information that is easy for anyone to read online. It even has detailed notes on where clusters of COVID-19 cases are popping up. (On Monday, two new cases were traced to music lessons in Seoul, and 21 more were connected to family gatherings.)
In the US, where cases are increasing across the board, that kind of detailed disease-tracing information is harder to come by. Extra caution is wise.
“Wisconsin, when we see per cent positivity going so high, we know that even at a small event, there is a reasonable likelihood of being that pre-symptomatic person that has no idea that they have COVID but are spreading it,” Weston said. “I mean, there’s just a lot of COVID.”