Each week, we answer "frequently asked questions" about life during the coronavirus crisis. And we ask readers to send in their queries. Some of the questions we get are a little ... unusual. They may not be the most critical health questions. Yet they are definitely interesting. So this week, here is a sampling of both frequently and infrequently asked questions. If you have a question you'd like us to consider for a future post, email us at email@example.com with the subject line: "Weekly Coronavirus Questions."
I protested. Now what?
Over the last two weeks, many thousands of people across the United States — and the world — have taken to the streets to demonstrate solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement and demand an end to police brutality. Last week's FAQ broke down some preventive measures to lower COVID-19 exposure while attending a protest. But some readers ask: How soon after protesting should you get tested to see if you might have been infected?
Dr. Joyce Sanchez, an infectious disease specialist who teaches at the Medical College of Wisconsin and directs its Travel Health Clinic, says symptoms develop on average of 3 to 7 days after exposure. So the first week after attending a demonstration is the peak time to monitor your health and look into obtaining a test through your primary care doctor or a local public health department or clinic.
There are, however, cases in which people take up to 14 days after exposure to the coronavirus to show symptoms, so both Dr. Sanchez and the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend keeping watch for a full two weeks following a crowded gathering just to be safe.
"Many people do not even notice when they're coming down with symptoms," says Sanchez. "The ones that are generally red flags are fever, cough, sore throat, shortness of breath. But some people just feel a little fatigue," says Sanchez. "And when you're like me — a mother of two and a full-time working mother — fatigue is a natural part of my life. So if there's any hint of something that just feels a little bit off, it's certainly very reasonable to get tested."
Dr. Mark Kortepeter, professor of epidemiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center College of Public Health, suggests waiting a few days after the protest to seek testing unless you're already showing symptoms. Even if you're infected, there's a chance you may not yet be shedding viral particles that a test could pick up.
In addition to getting tested, if you think you may have come in contact with someone showing symptoms of the coronavirus — at a demonstration or otherwise — try to isolate yourself from others for a week or so to minimize the risk of spreading infection to those around you.
Can my dog bring COVID-19 particles from the outside world into my home on its paws, say by walking on grass or a sidewalk where someone with the virus could have spit?
The experts we spoke to as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention state that the risk of transmission from a pet to a human is considered low. The coronavirus is still novel — so there's a chance new information could develop in the future — but for now, pets are not considered a major risk factor in the spread of infection.
Dr. Kortepeter adds that the risk of viral particles surviving on outdoor surfaces is low to begin with, and friction from the dog walking around would most likely get rid of any potential particles coming into the home.
"We don't know of any cases where there's been an animal playing a significant role in spreading the virus to humans. I think that is not going to be a major concern," says Dr. Sanchez. "But in general, it's going to be good to clean off paws just for the general cleanliness of the interior of the home." The same goes for human shoes.
Casinos are reopening — how safe is it to go back?
For both Dr. Sanchez and Dr. Kortepeter, the main concern with casinos is that like churches or bowling alleys, they are enclosed indoor spaces where large groups congregate. That in itself presents a higher risk of exposure to respiratory droplets in the air, especially if the venue does not enforce the wearing of face coverings.
And in spaces like casinos, where many people touch the same inanimate objects and surfaces — playing cards, chips, tables — there may be potentially added risks that we don't completely understand yet, says Dr. Kortepeter.
Here are some general precautions to take, if you do decide to go to a casino:
- Call ahead to ask that the casino is thoroughly disinfecting surfaces, encouraging social distancing between clients and requiring face coverings for employees.
- Wear a mask and try to keep 6 feet from others.
- Bring wipes for any high-contact surfaces you touch; carry hand sanitizer and wash your hands often.
"Even if the casino is practicing all of the disinfecting and mask wearing, there are variables that are going to be outside of your control," says Dr. Sanchez. "And again, you're sharing an enclosed space with many people who are outside of your general household circle — and that is considered high risk."
What are the risks when traveling with young children on an airplane?
In past FAQs, we've discussed how to take precautionary measures when traveling by plane and how to weigh the risk factors of driving versus flying. But when it comes to traveling with young children, are there additional ways to prevent COVID-19 exposure?
If possible, try to make all children older than 2 years old wear a face covering for the duration of travel, both in the airport and on the plane. Children younger than 2 should not use face cloth coverings, according to CDC guidelines, because they may make breathing difficult.
Bring lots of sanitizer and wipes to clean off kids' hands and try to keep them from touching surfaces as much as possible, says Dr. Kortepeter.
Bring enough food and water for your kids so you have sanitized options in case they're hungry or thirsty, says Dr. Sanchez.
"I think my biggest piece of advice for parents, regardless if they fly or if they drive, is to try to model safe practices. Children, particularly small children, absorb by our example more than we know," says Dr. Sanchez. "So if you're wearing the mask, if you're disinfecting, if you're maintaining that distance and you're reinforcing that through what you say and what you do — children pick up on that and try to mirror their parents."
Is it safe to drive in a convertible with the top down?
According to Harvard Medical School physician Abraar Karan, driving in an open convertible is probably one of the "less dangerous things you could do" in a pandemic when it comes to risk of infection. The velocity of the car and the open air would likely mitigate the direct exchange of COVID particles.
"If you're riding, one would think that most of the respiratory droplets coming out of your mouth are going to be flying behind you," he explains. "The risk of transmission there would probably be low, because you're both outdoors and having a lot of wind blowing [particles] back."
Still — like any disease transmission scenario — there are many factors at play: If you're at a stoplight having a face to face conversation with someone in a car next to you, you should probably wear a mask to protect the other driver and possibly give yourself some protection as well.
Seating arrangements matter, Karan noted. "Let's say someone's sitting behind you, and they're inhaling all the particles coming out of your mouth." That's why the safest bet for all car drivers and passengers is to still wear a mask.
Beyond in-car preventive measures, Karan said it's important to keep in mind that frequently touched car parts, like door handles, could hold viral particles, which could spread the disease. Use hand sanitizer after touching such objects, he advises.
One more car point: The risk of transmitting the virus in a closed car may be higher than in a convertible.
"In a convertible, the top's down, and you're theoretically almost outdoors at that point," Karan says. "We know transmission in enclosed space [like a non-convertible] is a big deal."
Is it safe to go back to bowling alleys?
If you want to play it safe, you probably won't be hitting the bowling alleys until the later phases of reopening. But even then, there are many concerns about transmission.
Even the most avid bowler recognizes that it's not essential to go bowling. As Harvard Medical School physician Abraar Karan put it: bowling is a "higher risk, but lower necessity, activity."
Why higher risk?
"We're talking about indoors," he says."We're talking about people sitting next to each other, around the area where the bowling balls come back, and probably in close proximity," he says.
While bowling alleys are typically spread out and large, Karan noted that there are more groups clustered around small areas. So it's probably not a great idea in the immediate future.
If you do decide to go bowling, it's essential to wear a mask, wash hands and sanitize yourself often.
I don't have a dishwasher. Should I wash my dishes with bleach? My husband says soap and water isn't enough!
Harvard Medical School physician Abraar Karan didn't have much to say on this one: "Just soap and water should be sufficient," he said, adding decisively: "No bleach."
I fell and broke a tooth and think it's infected. But I'm afraid to go to the dentist during a pandemic — what should I do?
If you need essential tooth care, you should go to the dentist. And it will most likely be OK, said Harvard Medical School physician Abraar Karan.
"Dentists are health-care workers," he said. "They'll be wearing personal protective equipment like N-95 masks [which] should block the majority of particles [traveling] from the dentist's face to yours. There could be some small particles that escape, but I would think that would be very unlikely."
Despite these precautions, there are some inherent risks involved, especially because tooth work is an oral procedure involving really close face-to-face contact. A dentist and the dental staff could fiddle with a mask, reducing its efectiveness, or wear it improperly. But the threat is "relatively low," Karan said. What's most important is that you get help if you need it.
"In a situation where somebody has a potential tooth infection developing, they need to get it done," Karan said, adding: "You should feel reassured that the dentist is going through some symptom checks before they come in."
Karan said he'd be "surpri(sed)" if we saw a lot of transmission from dentists properly wearing PPE and exhibiting no symptoms.