Using common sense about the coronavirus

Donald Trump has suspended travel from the European Union starting Friday and lasting for 30 days. Meanwhile the NBA has suspended its season after one Utah Jazz player tested positive. And in other news, Tom Hanks and his wife Rita Wilson tested positive while filming in Australia.

As is often the case when some kind of epidemic appears on the horizon, especially if it originates in a foreign country, a lot of people flip out with a “Oh my god, we’re all going to die!” response and start stocking up on supplies for a long confinement, somewhat like preppers do. But there is no need to panic if you cannot find hand sanitizers and face masks. If you are worried, there are some very simple things you can do.

In response to the recent coronavirus scare, one of the suggestions that have been made is for people to take their temperature now when they do not have any fever so as to have a baseline of what their own ‘normal’ temperature is so that they will have a better idea if they later actually have a fever. This is because what we think of as the normal temperature of 98.6F (37C) is an average value with a wide variation and may not apply to you.

The average body temperature is 98.6 F (37 C). But normal body temperature can range between 97 F (36.1 C) and 99 F (37.2 C) or more. Your body temperature can vary depending on how active you are or the time of day. Generally, older people have lower body temperatures than younger people have.

The following thermometer readings generally indicate a fever:

  • Rectal, ear or temporal artery temperature of 100.4 (38 C) or higher
  • Oral temperature of 100 F (37.8 C) or higher
  • Armpit temperature of 99 F (37.2 C) or higher

For example, when I took my own temperature several times yesterday to see how close I am to the average, I was way off. I found that it was 96.6F (35.9C), dropping even further to 96.0F (35.6C) in the morning. I have known that I have a low normal temperature for a long time which always makes me wonder how, when I do get a fever, to know when it is gone, since a temperature of 98.6F is not my ‘normal’. Should I assume that my fever is gone when it drops below 99F or should I wait until it goes all the way down to 96.6F? I usually take into account how I feel in addition to the temperature.

The PBS program Nova has a show dealing with the virus and how to respond. It also clarifies some of the terms that have been used. It points out that the name coronavirus specifies a class consisting of hundreds of viruses of which just seven have infected humans. “The official name for the coronavirus causing the epidemic today is SARS CoV-2—a coronavirus that’s never been seen in humans before. It can cause a respiratory illness called Coronavirus 2019, or COVID-19, with flu-like symptoms.”

This article provides some common-sense information about the virus and what to do about it, and how to avoid over-reacting and being scammed into buying stuff you don’t need. Stores seem to have sold out of hand sanitizers and some sellers who have stocks have exorbitant markups. But you don’t really need it if you have soap and water handy.

Per the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the most effective way of fighting coronavirus is using soap and water to wash your hands, and/or alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Specifically, it says: “Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing. If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol.”

But that “if” is pretty important here, says Dr. Christi Wojewoda, director of clinical microbiology at the University of Vermont Medical Center. “It doesn’t hurt to be cleaning your hands with hand sanitizer, but I don’t think that’s the most-required step” in fighting coronavirus, she says. Of the methods recommended by the CDC, “I would say washing your hands is number one; two is being very cognizant about touching your face; and three is using hand sanitizer.”

Wojewoda stresses that cleaning your hands with soap and water (and hand sanitizer, if you aren’t able to wash your hands the traditional way) before you touch your face is crucial here. That’s because, as far as we know, simply touching a surface with a high burden (microbiologist-speak for “infected with a shit ton of”) the virus is not enough to get you sick. It has to be transmitted via the mucus membranes of your face, making avoiding touching your mouth, eyes, and nose an extremely important preventive measure.

Scott agrees that hand sanitizer is not as crucial in preventing coronavirus as many media outlets have claimed. “Even though we know alcohol kills the virus, it’s still more effective to wash your hands,” he says, citing previous data regarding the efficacy of soap and water in fighting viruses, like influenza, versus hand sanitizer. “That’s still the gold standard here.” He also stresses that washing your hands with soap and water before touching your face is key. “If I had to put in a contact lens I wouldn’t feel confident just having used hand sanitizer. I’d want to wash my hands,” he says.

These measures are also effective against the normal flu that kills tens of thousands of people each year.

Stephen Colbert has some suggestions for alternatives to shaking hands.

The inept response by the Trump administration, not to mention the lying by Trump himself, is not helping. He is even cynically using this in his typically xenophobic appeals to build support for his stupid wall idea, even though the number of reported cases in Mexico is far lower than in the US.

The Daily Show has a trailer for a new horror film Pandumbic starring Donald Trump.


  1. Dunc says

    A lot of spurious accuracy in those temperatures there… Unless you have a quite expensive (and properly calibrated) thermometer, anything after the decimal point is largely worthless. While you can easily pick up thermometers that will read to 0.1 degrees C, most aren’t actually accurate to better than +/- 1 degree C.

    You can usually tell which direction a temperature given in both F and C has been converted, by looking for which one has decimals -- that’s the converted value. There aren’t that many instances where it’s worth dealing with fractions of a degree, and if you’re dealing with one of them, you’re probably going to specify a tolerance as well.

  2. Holms says

    I have known that I have a low normal temperature for a long time which always makes me wonder how, when I do get a fever, to know when it is gone, since a temperature of 98.6F is not my ‘normal’. Should I assume that my fever is gone when it drops below 99F or should I wait until it goes all the way down to 96.6F? I usually take into account how I feel in addition to the temperature.

    One big tell is if you feel a bit better -- or, less bad -- while also breaking into a heavy sweat. Your body only sweats as a way to bring temperature down, so if you are sweating, you can bet that your temperature set point has dropped down to its usual baseline.

  3. garnetstar says

    I have to point out that, while people are paying exorbitant prices for hand sanitizer because of the sudden shortage, the ingredient that kills the virus is 60% rubbing alcohol.

    You can still get a quart of 70% rubbing alcohol, or 91% if you prefer, at any grocery or drugstore for about $1. It’s not as good as washing your hands, as mentioned above, but you can wipe down surfaces with it to help, or add it to your hand-washing regime. I’ve had to do this for years, since I was teaching classes of 625 students (you read that right), and they gave me all kinds of viruses all semester, I was constantly sick. Just doing the things recommended for this virus--washing hands often, not touching face, and using rubbing alcohol for surfaces and on my hands--stopped me getting any viruses at all, not one illness. So, I highly recommend all of those, they work extremely well.

  4. says

    A recent video showed Tsai Ing-Wen and other Taiwanese returning to (and promoting) a traditional greeting: hands together like a ball at collarbone height, and a light bow of the head. No touching required.

  5. Who Cares says

    But there is no need to panic if you cannot find hand sanitizers and face masks.

    A face mask reduces the chance to get infected (to about 20% of not using one). They are better used by people who do have the virus since that prevents the normal droplets (that would be stopped by a mask) but also the greater part of aerosol particles (the ones that get into your body through the eyes).

  6. file thirteen says

    Suspending travel to Europe won’t do jack. The virus has already arrived and in spades. Within a week the US will have 12000 cases. However there’s still no need to panic. Consider it inevitable that covid-19 (the other name is too much of a mouthful) will come to your neighbourhood eventually, but most people won’t suffer too badly from it. Washing your hands and not touching your face is the best advice you could get.

    The good news for Mexico is that they got a wall built to keep the virus out. And they made the US pay for it! /s

  7. Silentbob says

    @ 4 Intransitive

    I like the Thai Wai / Indian Namaste.

    While the western handshake means, “I have no weapon in my hand / I’m not going to kill you”, the Asian gesture is derived from Buddhism and means, “I see you as equal / I respect you”. With added bonus of no touching. 🙂

    But, alas, I guess these days that would be “cultural appropriation”.

  8. Silentbob says

    Actually, fact-checking myself; the Thai version comes from Buddhism, via Hinduism and yoga. Indian Namaste is Hindu, not Buddhist.

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