7 steps to identify risky COVID-19 situations

Published June 29, 2020


7 steps to identify risky COVID-19 situations
Note: These imperfect rankings are based on assumptions. Every situation is different. People can change a safe activity into a risky one by not wearing masks, staying indoors, not social distancing, interacting longer than 15 minutes and other unsafe behaviors. Talk to your primary care provider for medical advice for your specific health condition. Adapted from graphic with info from MLive, by David Foster/Yahoo Finance.

As we venture out again to enjoy summer activities, many of you have submitted questions asking about the risk of COVID-19 during various activities. You want to know: What types of situations should be avoided? Is it safe to take my child to dance class? What preventive measures can be taken? 

We're happy to see these questions, because it's important to not let your guard down. 

"Even if you are seeing more people out, you still need to be cautious and take the virus seriously," says Sara H. Bares, MD, Nebraska Medicine infectious diseases specialist. "And remember that you do not have to have symptoms to transmit the virus."

Those at higher risk should certainly be more cautious, but young and otherwise healthy individuals can get sick too. We should all act responsibly to avoid putting others in harm's way. 

Here are seven ways to recognize risky situations:

1.    You're finding it hard to stay 6 feet away from others.

A safe situation is one where you can maintain 6 feet of space between yourself and people you don't live with. Droplets produced by talking, coughing or sneezing generally carry approximately 6 feet.  

2.    People aren't wearing masks.

Masks serve two purposes:

  • They protect you from exposure 
  • They also prevent you spreading the virus to others if you are asymptomatic or presymptomatic

Any two or three-ply cotton mask that covers the nose and mouth will work. Wash your hands before you put on your mask and after you take off your mask. If you wear a reusable mask, wash it regularly. 

If you are returning to work in a shared office space, wearing a mask is a good idea. If you are working in a private office, it's okay to take off the mask when you're alone in your office. Just be sure to wear it when using common spaces like bathrooms, hallways and breakrooms. 

If you are wearing a mask, but others around you aren't, you're still in a risky situation, so be extra cautious. 

3.    You're inside.

Outdoor activities are generally safer than indoor activities. A study of more than 7,300 cases in China show that just one case was linked to outdoor transmission. 

For example, playing golf in a small group outside is less risky than practicing yoga with a small group in an enclosed room. And eating inside a restaurant is much riskier than eating outside. If you are going to a restaurant, pick one with outdoor seating. 

4.    You're having contact with people you don't live with.

Sustained contact (more than 15 minutes) is a higher risk situation than brief contact. For example, stopping to talk to someone while you're out walking your dog is much riskier than just walking by and waving hello. 

5.    There are a lot of people around.

We are all craving social interaction, but please avoid large social gatherings. Try to restrict your circle to a small group of people you trust.

If you absolutely must host a social gathering, take precautions to minimize risk: 

  • Limit your guest list to 10 people or less
  • Hold gatherings outside
  • Place chairs or tables 6 feet apart
  • Ask guests to bring their own coolers with beverages and snacks
  • Reserve a designated bathroom for guests
    • Put out disposable paper towels rather than a cloth towel
    • Have disinfectant wipes available to wipe area after use

6.    People are yelling, laughing or singing without masks on.

Talking, yelling, exercising and singing can spread infected respiratory droplets. Any time inhaling and exhaling occur there is potential to spread the virus.

Singing and yelling aerosolize respiratory droplets, or convert them into a fine spray. Follow that with deep breathing, and you can start to understand how easy it is for tiny viral droplets to invade your lungs

7.    Food is laid out on tables and counters or isn't individually served.

People sharing food utensils and congregating around areas where food is laid out can pose a risk. Try to avoid buffet-style serving situations. And if you plan to attend a gathering where this is happening, consider eating before you go or bring your own snacks and drinks. 

What about herd immunity?

You may have heard talk about herd immunity. Herd immunity is the idea that when most of a population becomes immune to an infectious disease, it gives indirect protection to people who aren't.

The problem is that we don't know if people generate long-term immunity after they've had COVID-19. Some viruses only cause temporary immunity, or none at all. If the virus that causes COVID-19 doesn't generate a durable immune response inside the body, the concept of herd immunity won't work. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 70% or more of the population needs to have immunity to the coronavirus before herd immunity is achieved. Currently, it is estimated that Nebraska is well below this threshold. Even in the hardest hit areas, like New York City, studies indicate that only about 20% of residents have immunity.

Unfortunately, herd immunity isn't a realistic solution to the current pandemic. So it's up to all of us to choose safer activities over riskier ones, and take precautions in public.