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What You Need To Know About COVID-19

A straightforward guide to the novel virus

Imager header source: CDC

Updated May 21, 2020

COVID-19 has jumped from an obscure, local outbreak to a global pandemic in a matter of months. Its novel status and fast transmission rate have left many feeling anxious and worried about what the future holds. We break down everything you know about COVID-19 so far and the best ways to protect yourself.

What is COVID-19?

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) is a novel coronavirus that was first reported in Wuhan, China in December 2019. There are many different coronaviruses, including the common cold, Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS) and Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) (2). The virus has since spread worldwide and, as of May 21, 2020, has infected over 5,00,000 people. Estimates put the mortality rate between 1-3%, which is much higher than the mortality rate for the flu.

Symptoms

Since this is a new virus, we don't have a complete picture of all of the signs and symptoms of this disease. The most common symptoms of COVID-19 include a dry cough, fever, and fatigue; symptoms start appearing on an average of 5-6 days after infection (range is 1-14 days) (1). For most people COVID-19 is a mild illness and they can recover at home without any special treatment. About 1 in 5 COVID-19 cases become serious and require hospitalization (2). Older people and people with underlying health conditions are especially at risk of developing a serious case of COVID-19.

COVID-19 is thought to spread quickly from people who are in close contact with each other (within 6 feet) (3). The WHO states "the disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets" (1). COVID-19 has also been shown to survive on surfaces. One study found that COVID-19 was able to survive on stainless steel, cardboard, and copper for at least 72 hours (5).

How to Stay Safe

If you're in the high-risk category, you should stay home as much as possible and avoid crowds. Everyone else should practice good hygiene techniques, implement social distancing, and wear a face mask when leaving the home.

Washing your hands frequently throughout the day is one of the best ways to stay protected against COVID-19. Normal soap is just as effective in protecting against COVID-19 as antibacterial soap. Make sure you're scrubbing your hands for at least 20 seconds every time you wash them and to follow this helpful graph from the WHO:

Source: WHO

A guide from the CDC on how to properly wash your hands Part 1

A guide from the CDC on how to properly wash your hands Part 2

Use hand sanitizer if you're out and don't have access to a sink. Make sure the hand sanitizer contains at least 60% alcohol; a higher alcohol content is better at killing germs. The CDC states: "when using hand sanitizer, apply the product to the palm of one hand (read the label to learn the correct amount) and rub the product all over the surfaces of your hands until your hands are dry" (6). But remember that hand sanitizer won't work well if your hands are visibly dirty or greasy.

It's important to use whatever soap or sanitizer is available while you're out and about, but we also like to have some non-toxic options at home. Our non-toxic hand soap roundup, non-toxic hand sanitizer roundup, DIY hand sanitizer guide, and non-toxic hand cream roundup will help keep you protected without the use of harmful ingredients .

Along with person-to-person contact, many counties are also experiencing community spread. Community spread means some people who have gotten COVID-19 aren't sure where or how they were exposed to the virus. During the early stages of the outbreak, it was really important to limit the spread of transmission. By limiting the spread of COVID-19, many places were able to "flatten the curve"... AKA avoid overwhelming healthcare systems to ensure that the sickest patients are able to receive the care they need.


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Today, many cities and states are easing restrictions and slowly coming out of shelter in place orders. Although the lockdown is easing up, please make sure to still follow all rules and regulations put in place by your local government or public health official. Check your local government's website for updates about the easing of your stage of shelter in place.

Even if you're not under a shelter in place order, you must practice social distancing. Since this virus is spread through close contact (within 6 feet), putting distance between you and others in your community can stop transmission. You can try social distancing by avoiding supermarkets during peak hours or watching a movie at home instead of going to the theater. Always wear a mask when you're in public.

Are Children More At Risk?

Most of the COVID-19 cases have been seen in adults and it doesn't seem that children are at higher risk of catching the virus. (4) Most children that tested positive for COVID-19 have only had mild symptoms, but there have also been some severe cases and fatalities. Any child over the age of 2 should wear a face mask out in public (4).

What To Do If You're Sick

If you're feeling mildly sick and you're worried you may have COVID-19, stay home and contact your healthcare provider to ask about next steps. Many testing sites are now available to the public. You may be asked to go to a local testing center before seeing your primary care physician. If you're experiencing serious symptoms like shortness of breath, you might want to head to your local ER. Make sure to always wear a face mask in public if you suspect you're sick- this will protect others around you and stop the spread of your illness.


While the outbreak of a new virus is scary, knowledge is power. It's important to stay informed and follow all recommendations from your local healthcare officials. Together we can limit the spread of COVID-19 and help protect the health of our community.

COVID-19 Resources

CDC: Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19) Situation Summary

WHO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak

WHO: Coronavirus disease (COVID-2019) situation reports

WHO: Q&A on coronaviruses (COVID-19)

Johns Hopkins University: Coronavirus COVID-19 Global Cases by the Center for Systems Science and Engineering (CSSE)


References:
  1. https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019
  2. https://www.who.int/health-topics/coronavirus
  3. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/index.html
  4. https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/specific-groups/children-faq.html
  5. https://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMc2004973?query=featured_home
  6. https://www.cdc.gov/handwashing/show-me-the-science-hand-sanitizer.html

It's almost the end of summer and time to start thinking about those back-to-school supplies. Backpack, lunch box, pencils, pens, crayons, notebooks, NSF/ANSI 53 certified water bottles to filter lead…wait, what was that last one? Yep, many children in this country will be attending school in a state where there is currently no requirement to filter and test school drinking water for lead. Even in states and counties where they do have laws on the books, there are still gaps that need to be addressed to better protect children. So, here is what you need to know and what you can do about it.

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No matter where you live, sustainability is becoming a hot topic. It might be a friendly reminder sign to bring your reusable bag to the grocery store, a city government conversation about not using straws, or it could run as deep as cities committing to be zero waste - some as early as next year. With all of this comes the question of what sort of products are best for the world? Is biodegradable really any different from compostable. Should I opt for compostable options over recyclable ones? Does reusing things help?

All of these are great questions! And the answer to all of them has an impact on our planet, and oftentimes our health, too.

So, first of all, what do all of these different terms that are being thrown around really mean? Let's start with the one we probably have all heard the most: recyclable.

Recyclable

Recycling is the process of taking a product and breaking it down to use it again, often as a raw material. We all know that we can recycle paper, plastic, and cans. In most places, recycling facilities can also deal with glass. All of this is great, but let's break down the concept a little bit more. Quick note, each city is slightly different and you should check exactly what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood before you just assume you are good to go.

Tossing something you think or hope can be recycled into the recycling bin is often called wishful or aspirational recycling. While your heart is in the right place, doing this might actually be worse than just trashing something you aren't clear on. Why? Because that one iffy thing can actually be enough to compromise a full batch of recycling, which could mean everything ends up in the landfill instead of just the one questionable item. In those situations, the best option would be to confirm before you dispose of it. And, if your neighborhood doesn't recycle it, ask your city to start accepting those items. But, in the meantime, if you don't know, don't just hope it can be recycled.

Back to the topic at hand, what is actually recyclable? Most plastics that hold their shape can be recycled (like water bottles, food containers, bottles for household items, etc.). In some places, they have even started being able to accept items like plastic grocery bags, shrink wrap, and plastic wrap if it is packaged correctly. Other commonly accepted items for recycling include paper, cardboard, unbroken glass and metal (including tinfoil if it's clean and in a large enough ball).

Some common items that need special recycling (but are in fact recyclable) include: batteries, electronics, and fabric (and clothing). Check with your waste management provider to see what can and can't be recycled in your neighborhood.

Compostable

This is becoming more common in larger metropolitan cities. Composting is a way to turn items made of natural materials back into a nutrient rich soil. Often times the compost is for food scraps, but other items that are fully compostable include yard scraps, dead flowers, items made of untreated wood, and those made of pure cotton. While starting with food scraps is the easiest, the more you look around the more you will find items for other parts of your life that are completely compostable.

Compostable items are great because instead of going to landfill or needing to be processed and turned into something else, they actually breakdown themselves in a natural setting (or in an industrial facility) to create something useful right away.

But, what happens if you have items that are compostable but don't have access to composting. Side note: you can create a compost pile in your own backyard (or under your sink). We know that isn't for everyone though. So, what happens if these items end up in just in your standard trash bin? You might think that it's still an improvement and they will break down, right? Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, but that's not exactly the case. Compostable items break down into nutrient rich soil only if they have the right conditions. And a traditional landfill is not a place with the right conditions.

Industrial facilities have the optimal conditions for composting. These facilities regulate temperature, moisture, and air flow in order to ensure a compostable item breaks down as fast as possible. At-home compost is more prone to temperature/moisture/air flow changes and might not break down as quickly as it would in an industrial setting.

Composting works best when the items have access to oxygen and are regularly being turned over. A landfill is basically the opposite. It's an anaerobic environment where most of the pile actually doesn't have access to oxygen. That means that if your compostable takeout container ends up in the landfill, it won't break down as intended. Instead, it will mostly likely just act like a plastic container and stay around for a lot longer than intended.

So, while recognizing compostable items is a good first step, purchasing and using compostable items in place of other items has the biggest impact when they actually end up in a compost pile. Although, we do want to mention that the production of plastic is pretty nasty for a lot of reasons, so opting for compostable items made of cotton, bamboo, and even PLA (that vegetable based plastic cup you see at some restaurants now), is probably still better for the environment and your health.

Biodegradable

The dictionary definition of biodegradable is a substance that can break down naturally without causing any harm (1). This is very similar to compostable, but the biggest difference is that what it breaks down to doesn't cause harm as opposed to starting with an organically occurring materials. Therefore, man-made or chemically produced items can still be considered biodegradable, while not necessarily being compostable. This is like a square being a rectangle but a rectangle not being a square. Those items that are compostable are also biodegradable, but not everything biodegradable is compostable.

Again, biodegradable options are still a step in the right direction. It does mean that the ingredients break down over time (that's a perk) and when they do break down, the base components are not harmful to the environment (also a perk).

One drawback of biodegradable materials is that there is not necessarily a timeframe for when the items will break down. It could be many years before they start to degrade. In most cases, biodegradable isn't really saying much about the product. Think of it the same way you do products labeled "natural."

The bottom line

If we were to rank these terms for which ones are best for the planet and in turn our health, we'd say first look for items that are compostable, recyclable, and lastly biodegradable. Compostable items, if properly disposed of, will break down completely and can them be used to grow more resources. Recyclable items can be turned into raw materials that can then be used to make new things without needing to create completely new resources. And finally, biodegradable options will eventually break down, but we don't know when and there is no plan to use them for any additional benefit.

Of course, we are big proponents of reusing items when possible, but we also know that it can be incredibly hard to live your life without there being some items that needs to be disposed of. So, go on with this new information to help you think about what to toss and how to do it best.





References

  1. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/biodegradable
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