Coronavirus news you can use
May 26, 2020

Memorial Day is always kind of an odd holiday to mark the unofficial start of summer, and that was especially true this year. Some people sheltered at home and others crowded in pools, while the nation collectively mourned the nearly 100,000 Americans who died from COVID-19 — more than the U.S. dead in every war from Vietnam onward combined, The Washington Post notes. FDA Commissioner Stephen Hahn tweeted Sunday a reminder that "the coronavirus is not yet contained" and "it is up to every individual to protect themselves and their community."

Hahn highlighted "social distancing, hand washing, and wearing masks," but what activities are safe during a pandemic where a dangerous, contagious virus spreads by saliva droplets passed from one person to another? NPR's Morning Edition graded 14 options, based on advice from infectious disease and public health experts. Some of their guidance was intuitive: camping is generally low-risk while crowding into a bar is high-risk. But there were some surprises, too.

Going to a public pool or beach, renting a vacation house with another trusted family, and letting friends use your bathroom were all deemed relatively low-risk, while using a public restroom and staying at a hotel were judged low to medium risk, and going to an indoor religious service, getting a hair cut, and eating indoors at a restaurant were high or medium-high on the risk scale. As a general rule of thumb, "always choose outdoors over indoor, always choose masking over not masking, and always choose more space for fewer people over a smaller space," epidemiologist Dr. Emily Landon tells NPR News.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's guidance on traveling during the COVID-19 pandemic is a little more conservative, highlighting some risks from camping — you are farther from a hospital and can still share bathrooms and picnic areas with potentially infectious people — and reminding everyone that not all state and national parks will be open, and some won't have functioning bathrooms. But "in many areas, people can visit parks, trails, and open spaces as a way to relieve stress, get some fresh air and vitamin D, stay active, and safely connect with others," CDC adds, noting that safe usually means keeping a distance of six feet from others. Peter Weber

April 14, 2020

Grocery shopping is one of the few things everyone is still doing in the time of COVID-19 social distancing. Whether you order online or shop in a store, you eventually come in contact with the food and toiletries — but "don't drive yourself crazy disinfecting your groceries," writes NPR's Maria Godoy, citing virologists, infectious disease specialists, and food safety experts.

No matter what that family doctor in Michigan advised in his video, "all of the experts we spoke with say that disinfecting and hand-washing every last item in your grocery haul is really not necessary," Godoy reports. "You might find it comforting to know that none of these experts are doing this themselves." There's a very small chance you could contract the coronavirus from touching a package then your face, but "the majority of transmission is probably going to be from respiratory droplets, which you're exposed to when you're around other people," says Angela Rasmussen, a Columbia University virologist.

You should shop alone, avoid crowded stores, sanitize your cart, stay six feet from fellow shoppers, and get in and out of the store as quickly as possible, but your best bet to avoid contamination from the groceries themselves is washing your hands with soap and water after shopping, again after unpacking the groceries, and before preparing the food and eating. Gloves aren't necessary at the store, but do wear a mask.

"Time is really on your side here," said Dr. David Aronoff, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. "After 24 hours, the vast majority of virus is no longer infectious," and after 72 hours, there's almost no trace of the virus on most surfaces. You can leave nonperishable food out for 24 hours before putting it away, though it's good practice to wipe down countertops where you unpacked the groceries. Read more expert advice on how to pay, whether to change clothes, and other tips at NPR. Peter Weber

April 10, 2020

To limit the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) started advising last week that Americans wear face masks in public in areas where they can't keep a safe six-foot distance from people. But U.S. health officials don't want people buying masks — the limited supply is needed in hospitals dealing with the pandemic.

Not everyone knows how to make a mask at home, though, and in a CNN town hall Thursday night, Dr. Sanjay Gupta demonstrated some options, including creating a mask from a bandana and large hair bands. Dr. Celine Gounder fielded a question on how to safely use and sanitize your homemade cloth mask: remove the mask from behind your ears, then throw it in the washing machine and wash your hands.

Surgeon General Jerome Adams also demonstrated how to make a mask using two rubber bands and a cut-up T-shirt, though a bandana, hand towel, tea towel, or old scarf would also work.

Researchers suggest using tighter-knit fabrics — hold it up to the light to get a sense of the density of the weave — but say any fabric is better than none. You don't need to wear the mask when you go for a walk outside by yourself, Gupta said, but when you can't social distance, the mask can help prevent you from spreading the virus to others, just as their masks protect you. "Everyone has to behave like they have the virus," he said. Peter Weber

March 26, 2020

The Senate unanimously passed a massive $2.2 trillion coronavirus emergency rescue package late Wednesday, and among its many tools to bolster the economy amid the COIVD-19 pandemic is $290 billion set aside for direct payments to most Americans. Assuming the House passes the bill, expected to happen Friday, and President Trump signs it, most Americans will get a one-time payment of about $1,200 sometime in April, Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin says.

The payments will be based on tax returns from 2019 or 2018. Generally speaking, individuals with an adjusted gross income up to $75,000 will get $1,200 checks, or $2,400 for couples earning up to $150,000. Couples and "head of household" single parents will also get $500 per child. The checks taper off up to $99,000 in income per individual and $198,000 for joint filers with no children. The Washington Post has a calculator for estimating how much money your check should contain. Kiplinger also has a helpful stimulus calculator.

About 125 million people, or 83 percent of tax filers, will get checks, says Kyle Pomerleau at the American Enterprise Institute. "The main people excluded from receiving a payment are: the wealthy, nonresident aliens (i.e. foreigners who do not hold a green card), and 'dependents' who can be claimed on someone else’s tax return.," the Post reports.

Many Americans won't actually get a paper check. The first people to get funds from the program will be those who have direct deposit information on file with the Internal Revenue Service from 2019 returns, filed this year, or 2018 returns. If the IRS does not have your direct deposit information, it will send a check to the mailing address it has on file. "People who don't pay taxes, such as those with very low incomes, may be hard to reach the way the program is designed," Politico notes.

"The last time the U.S. government did anything like this, back in 2008," the Post reports, "the payments went out in batches and it took about eight weeks for the final people to receive their checks." Peter Weber

March 23, 2020

You, statically speaking, are unlikely to die or even get very ill from the COVID-19 coronavirus spreading around the world. So why should you put your life on hold and self-isolate, if you can? If the idea of flattening a curve seems too abstract, Gov. Jay Inslee (D-Wash.) points out that "the penalty" for ignoring orders or requests to commit to social distancing is that "you might kill your grandparent." (Younger people get seriously ill and die from the disease, too, though in smaller numbers).

Prof. Hugh Montgomery, an intensive care specialist in Britain, drew on math, pointing out that one difference between the flu and this more contagious new coronavirus is that one person might infect 14 others with the flu in the same time a person with COVID-19 infects 59,000, with repercussions for an entire society. "If you are irresponsible enough to think that you don't mind if you get the flu, remember it's not about you — it's about everybody else," he told Channel 4's Dispatches program.

Tom Hanks, who is recovering from the coronavirus in Australia, had a gentler explanation.

Sometimes gentle doesn't cut it, as these Italian mayors and governor demonstrate.

The other, less-strenuous thing you can do to stop the spread of COVID-19 — for yourself and others — is to wash your hands often and for at least 20 seconds. And you are probably not doing a great job of washing your hands, as this tutorial shared by Canada's armed forces shows, with a nod to Robert Frost. The video is in Spanish, but in this case, language is no barrier.

"If we take care of each other, help where we can, and give up some comforts," Hanks writes, "this, too, shall pass." Peter Weber

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