5 Ways to Prevent COVID-19 Infection—An Illustrated Guide

How can we avoid catching and spreading the novel coronavirus?

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, we’re told we can each play a role in preventing its spread. But how? In this video, Clara Liao, a Yale School of Medicine PhD student, sketches out the most important precautions to take on your next grocery store run or other necessary errand. 

“There is a lot of information out there about how we should be protecting ourselves and others from COVID-19,” Liao says. 

Though headlines have sometimes sent conflicting messages, health researchers agree that protective measures currently in place, such as stay-at-home orders, as well as the five key practices described below, will continue to help “flatten the curve.” (This term, which Liao describes in another illustrated summary, refers to the need to slow the spread of COVID-19 so that U.S. health care system’s staff and resources aren’t pushed beyond capacity to care for hospitalized coronavirus patients.) 

So far, the best actions to take to slow the transmission of COVID-19 include: 

  • Social distancing (maintain a distance of 6 feet between yourself and others) 
  • Stay at home 
  • Avoid touching your face 

Like the common cold and influenza viruses, SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, travels through the air in respiratory droplets propelled by an infected person’s sneeze or cough. 

“Research now suggests that droplets may even be emitted from just speaking or breathing and can potentially last in the air for three hours before falling to the ground,” Liao says, pointing out a worrying characteristic of the virus’ ability to spread easily between people. 

Another concerning pattern emerging from studies of outbreaks in the U.S. and other countries is that infected people may spread the virus even if they have no symptoms (called asymptomatic) or before they show signs of infection, a stage of disease called pre-symptomatic. 

Up to 25% of people infected with COVID-19 may not show symptoms and feel fine, according to an estimate by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

That’s why the CDC recommends wearing a cloth mask in public. But you’ve likely heard several kinds of masks mentioned in the news, so Liao explains the differences between them.

The medical-grade N95 respirator, which forms a tight seal against the face, is designed to filter out 95% of very small particles about 0.3 microns in size. (As a comparison, E. coli bacteria is about 1 micron in size.) Since the masks provide such a high level of protection, the CDC recommends that N95 respirators be reserved for health care providers who are interacting with and treating coronavirus patients.

Surgical masks, by comparison, fit loosely around the wearer’s nose and mouth and provide a physical barrier, not a filtrating one, against particles and germs. “They protect the wearer against large respiratory droplets, but not smaller particles, so are not considered reliable respiratory protection by the CDC,” Liao says. However, these should also be reserved for health care workers, she adds. 

For protection in public places, the CDC recommends that people wear some form of cloth mask. However, the nature of the cloth material means that they too act only as a physical barrier and do not fully protect the wearer by filtering out COVID-19 droplets. “You may not feel like others need protection from you, especially if you are not feeling sick,” Liao says. But the reason for the cloth mask is primarily to protect others around you, Liao says. 

Another way to protect yourself is to regularly clean frequently touched surfaces at home, like doorknobs and faucets, as the virus appears to survive on surfaces for hours to days. Disinfectants can be cleaning liquids that are at least 70% ethanol, made with diluted bleach, 3% hydrogen peroxide mix, or commercially available disinfectant wipes. “Be sure to never mix cleaning products,” she says. 

Liao repeats the importance of one of the best preventive measures against the novel coronavirus: wash your hands, especially before cooking and eating. “Which you should be doing all the time, anyway,” she says.

Click here to learn more about Yale’s research efforts and response to COVID-19.