Coronavirus today: Academics shout out

Coronavirus is pretty much all there is for now. Academics at various national and international institutions are weighing in with practical tips (not touching your face, staying healthy, using screen time effectively) to science (the older immune system and R0) to economics (paying for stimulus, sending out checks) to politics (functioning courts, quarantine rights) to arts (pandemic lit).

Stories written by academic scholars and researchers, courtesy of The Conversation, here include:

1. How to stop touching your face to minimize spread of coronavirus and other germs;

2. How to maintain physical and mental health during coronavirus;

3. Three smart ways to use screen time while coronavirus keeps kids at home;

4. Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered;

5. Coronavirus pandemic is a disaster for the world, but a few good things might emerge from it.

1. How to stop touching your face to minimize spread of coronavirus and other germs

By Stephen D. Benning, Assistant Professor of Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Brian Labus, Assistant Professor of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, University of Nevada, Las Vegas; Kimberly A. Barchard, Professor of Quantitative Psychology, University of Nevada, Las Vegas.

Public health officials consistently promote hand-washing as a way for people to protect themselves from the COVID-19 coronavirus. However, this virus can live on metal and plastic for days, so simply adjusting your eyeglasses with unwashed hands may be enough to infect yourself. Thus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have been telling people to stop touching their faces.

We are experts in psychological science and public health. Brian Labus is an expert in communicable diseases who knows what people should do to avoid becoming infected. Stephen Benningis a clinical psychologist who helps clients change their habits and manage stress in healthy ways. Kimberly Barchard is an expert in research methods who wanted to know what the research says about face-touching. Together, we used our clinical expertise and the research literature to identify the best practices to reduce face-touching and lower people’s chances of catching COVID-19.

People touch their faces frequently. They wipe their eyes, scratch their noses, bite their nails and twirl their mustaches. People touch their faces more when they are anxious, embarrassed or stressed, but also when they aren’t feeling anything at all. Studies show that students, office workers, medical personnel and people on trains touch their faces between nine and 23 times per hour, on average.

Why is it so hard to stop? Face-touching rewards us by relieving momentary discomforts like itches and muscle tension. These discomforts usually pass within a minute, but face-touching provides immediate relief that eventually makes it a habitual response that resists change.

Change habitual behaviors

Habit reversal training is a well-established behavior modification technique that helps people stop a variety of seemingly automatic behaviors, such as nervous tics, nail-bitingand stuttering. It trains people to notice the discomfort that prompts their habits, select another behavior to use until the discomfort passes and change their surroundings to lessen their discomfort.

You may have already changed some of your other habits – for example, by coughing into your elbow instead of your hands, or greeting others with a bow or wave instead of a handshake. But unlike coughing and hand-shaking, people frequently touch their faces without being aware of doing so. So the first step in reducing face-touching is becoming aware of it.

Each time you touch your face, notice how you touched your face, the urge or sensation that preceded it and the situation you were in – what you were doing, where you were physically or what you were feeling emotionally. If you usually don’t notice when you touch your face, you can ask someone else to point it out.

Self-monitoring is more effective when people create a physical record. You can create a log where you briefly describe each instance of face-touching. For example, log entries might say:

• Scratched nose with finger, felt itch, while at my desk

• Fiddled with eyeglasses, hands tingled, frustrated

• Rested chin on palm, neck sore, while reading

• Bit fingernail, nail caught on pants, watching TV

Self-monitoring is more effective if people share their outcomes publicly, so consider sharing your results with friends or post it on social media.

Create new responses

Now that you are aware of the behavior you want to change, you can replace it with a competing response that opposes the muscle movements needed to touch your face. When you feel the urge to touch your face, you can clench your fists, sit on your hands, press your palms onto the tops of your thighs or stretch your arms straight down at your sides. This competing response should be inconspicuous and use a position that can be held for at least a minute. Use the competing response for as long as the urge to touch your face persists.

Some sources recommend object manipulation, in which you occupy your hands with something else. You can rub your fingertips, fiddle with a pen or squeeze a stress ball. The activity shouldn’t involve touching any part of your head. For tough-to-break habits, object manipulation isn’t as effective as competing responses, perhaps because people tend to play with objects when bored, but touch their faces and hair when anxious.

Learn more about breaking the itch-scratch cycle.

Manage your triggers

Changing your environment can reduce your urges to touch your face and your need to use alternative responses. Use your log to figure out what situations or emotions are associated with your face-touching. For example:

• If your glasses keep slipping off your nose, you can use ear hooks or hair ties to prevent slippage.

• If you bite your nails, you can use a file to keep your nails short, or wear gloves or fingertip bandages, so that nail-biting is impossible.

• If allergies make your eyes or skin itch or make your nose run, you can limit your exposure to allergens or take antihistamines.

• If you get food stuck between your teeth, you can brush your teeth after each meal.

• If your hair gets in your eyes and mouth, you can use an elastic, scarf or hair product to keep it back.

You can read more detailed information about habit reversal training.

Face it, you may not be able to stop

Most people cannot entirely eliminate unwanted habits, but they can reduce them. Consistent with the principles of harm reduction, just reducing face-touching lessens the opportunities for viruses to enter your system.

Sometimes you need to touch your face: flossing your teeth, putting in contact lenses, wiping food off your lips, putting on makeup or shaving your jaw. Remember to wash your hands first. To adjust your glasses without first washing your hands, use a tissue and throw it out immediately after use. Avoid finger food and using unwashed hands to put food into your mouth. Wash your hands first, or use utensils or the wrapper to handle the food.

Other ways you can reduce the spread of infectious diseases include practicing social spacing, washing hands thoroughly with soap and water or hand sanitizer and disinfecting high-touch surfaces regularly. When your hands touch contaminated surfaces, though, the suggestions above may help you avoid touching your face before you wash them again.

2. How to maintain physical and mental health during coronavirus

By Nita Bharti, Assistant Professor of Biology, Center for Infectious Disease Dynamics, Pennsylvania State University

Outside a dormitory at the Washington State Patrol Fire Training Academy, a sign reminds people to wash their hands./Jason Redmon

Millions are asking for clear, comprehensive information and guidelines regarding the novel coronavirus. Unfortunately, the U.S. public hasn’t received factual information or future direction from the federal government. Instead, the government has underreported cases and local transmission rates due to a lack of testing kits.

But during a crisis, leadership can come from unexpected places.

As he suspended all NBA games, commissioner Adam Silver delivered a powerful message to the public that the outbreak must be taken seriously. With that single announcement, Silver enforced more effective public health policy than the White House has during this pandemic. Shortly thereafter, all other major sports leagues followed his lead; the NBA’s decisive action helped the dominoes fall.

Last January, NFL running back Marshawn Lynch delivered solid advice for his younger colleagues in a post-game interview: take care of your bodies, your mentals, and your chicken (that is, your money). Fortuitously, this is also applicable for everyone during COVID-19.

As an assistant professor of biology at The Pennsylvania State University, I study infectious disease risks and preventative solutions. I know the only way to stop this outbreak and prevent severe cases is to reduce transmission. Without all of us changing our behavior, those who are more likely to experience severe outcomes will have negative health outcomes.

While the elderly and people with respiratory conditions are at highest risk, severe cases have also been reported in young, otherwise healthy people. Without behavioral interventions, so many patients will require hospitalization, they will exceed the capacity of the U.S. health care system. This will cause preventable deaths.

Reducing overall transmission will protect the most vulnerable members of our communities and keep the health care system functioning. You are no longer making decisions for only yourself, you have to constantly consider how your personal behavior is going to impact everyone around you and everyone around them.

You need space, but you also need connection

So far, no pharmaceutical interventions, such as vaccines and antiviral drugs, exist. At the moment, we must rely on basic public health measures: wash your hands frequently, don’t touch your face, use hand sanitizer, and limit your exposure to others. It may sound simplistic, but those things are enormously helpful. Non-pharmaceutical interventions are extremely effective against infectious diseases; all Ebola epidemics prior to 2014 are just one example.

Right now, this means avoiding direct physical contact with others. Avoid crowds, currently groups over 10, reduce or eliminate non-essential travel, and expand the space between you and others to practice social distancing. Give yourself about 6 feet of space. But if you’re not feeling sick, you don’t have to become sedentary or trapped indoors. Go for a walk, dance around your house, or tune into on-demand fitness or YouTube instructors. If you think you’re getting sick (or if you’re already sick) you need to stay home and keep away from others. Self-quarantine is a good idea anytime you think you have an infectious disease.

Social distancing is actually physical distancing; it does not mean social isolation. During this outbreak, your mental health is critical and vulnerable right now. Social support helps and is also linked to physical health. It’s all connected.

Make deliberate efforts to be in touch with family, friends, or colleagues/classmates who are now telecommuting. Any kind of direct communication will be supportive: email, texts, video chats, even voice calls, if that’s your thing. It’s likely someone you know will end up in quarantine or isolation for 14 days, and it will be psychologically challenging. Help them, but don’t take on all the responsibility.

Create a schedule to have a different friend or relative check in with them. Also note that social media can have negative impactson mental health. Don’t assume Instagram puppies will keep your quarantined friends fully supported.

Missing travel or events you’ve been excited about will bring disappointment. It’s OK to feel sad about losses that seem trivial right now. The endless stream of news, with rapidly changing information and misinformation, can be overwhelming. The lack of a large-scale management plan from the government might leave you frustrated. Take a moment to acknowledge those feelings of insecurity. Now more than ever, don’t face your anxiety alone.

Shoppers in Los Angeles stock up on essentials: food, water and toilet paper./ Mark Ralston

We’re in this together

Finally, the meaty part of all this: Don’t blow your paycheck stockpiling months of food and supplies. Don’t panic and buy every possible over-the-counter drug. Buy what you need and leave the rest for others.

It is a good idea to check your prescription medications and make sure you’ve got a month’s supply on hand. Assess the shelf-stable foods you have. You may own enough unexpired cans and products to get you through several days. Aim to have two to four weeks of non-perishables around so you don’t have to shop frequently and base your decisions on what you can safely spend and store.

Since this outbreak began, the federal government has fumbled response and preparedness. Conversely, local government officials set precedents to eliminate costs for testing and treatment. New York, Washington and California led the way, announcing free testing early.

On March 12, Rep. Katie Porter pressed the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to finally deliver a long-overdue “guarantee” of free coronavirus testing for every American. We don’t know how this will roll out operationally, given the shortage of test kits, but the importance of free testing cannot be overstated. People don’t get tested if they’re worried about costs. And that’s a huge problem: Unreported or mild cases lead to transmission that is nearly impossible to stop.

Employers also need to encourage and reward responsible self-quarantining behavior. Paid sick leave would vastly improve compliance with self-quarantine measures. A system where sick days translate to lost wages promotes virus transmission.

This outbreak will continue to change our lives. We will not go back to the way things were in two weeks. We are looking ahead to a new normal. To protect the most vulnerable members of our communities, the less vulnerable must make responsible and unselfish choices. The necessary interventions to manage this outbreak have been unprecedented and sometimes unpopularbut necessary. Marshawn Lynch wisely instructed us to protect our bodies, our mentals, and our chicken. Now it’s our responsibility to extend that to protecting each other.

3. Three smart ways to use screen time while coronavirus keeps kids at home

By Rebecca Dore, Senior Research Associate in Early Childhood, The Ohio State University

As families everywhere adjust to social distancing measures like closed schools and child care centers, workplaces and more, parents are grappling with questions regarding their kids’ use of technology. Rebecca Dore, an expert on children and media, offers some tips for how to make the most of screen time for kids who are cooped up at home.

1. Choose high-quality educational media

Rather than handing over the remote or the iPad, parents can help young children by choosing media that’s worthwhile. By the time children are about age 3, high-quality media like “Sesame Street” can help them learn about words, numbers and even important facts about how to stay safe, research has shown.

Kids can also learn from apps, such as Bedtime Math (which has been shown to have long-term effects on children’s math skills), Measure That Animal (a “Sesame Street” game focused on improving children’s measuring skills) and D.W.’s Unicorn Adventure (which uses a fantasy game to teach about healthy foods).

This all means that screen time doesn’t just have to be a way to keep your child occupied while you send some emails or tend to household chores. But where can you find high-quality educational media?

Resources like Common Sense Media provide research-based information and ratings about all types of media for kids of all ages. They even have a special page to help families during the coronavirus pandemic. Shows and apps from PBS KIDS are all based on child development research and a search tool on their website lets you choose your child’s age and a topic area to search for appropriate media. It also provides related activities that can be done both online and without a device.

Another way to tie learning and screen time is to follow your child’s interests and find educational media to match whatever they are obsessing over. If 6-year-old Robby is begging to make pancakes for breakfast now that he’s not rushing off to school, find a video that shows the science behind how baking sodamakes those pancakes extra fluffy.

2. Use media with children

Although adults often use media as a babysitter, young children get more out of it when they use it with an adult. Grownups, after all, can help them understand what’s going on and make connections to the real world. One study found that when 3-year-olds watched a “Dora the Explorer” episode, 75% of them thought the Spanish words in the show weren’t real or said they weren’t sure if they were real.

Not surprisingly, those children were less likely to learn from the show.

Parents can help by watching with children, talking to themabout what they are seeing and linking it to their everyday lives. For example, a mom or dad can observe that “Dora speaks Spanish, like your friend Mateo from school.”

Making the time and effort to do this is always easier said than done – especially when kids are home from school and need to be entertained around the clock while their parents are nearby teleworking. But even when you feel like you have no time or energy to watch, listen or play together, there are some ways you can fit some of what experts call “joint media engagement” into a busy schedule.

Have your 4-year-old listen to an e-book at the kitchen table while you’re making dinner. You can pay attention and then talk about it afterwards with your child. Or listen to an age-appropriate podcast together while you’re folding laundry instead of setting your child up with a TV show in the other room.

3. Find ways to create, rather than consume

Kids can do more than merely use, play with and watch media created by others. Instead, they can use technology in creative and imaginative ways.

For example, tech can help them write their own songs or create works of art. Children can also use smartphones, tablets or computers to create their own videos to share with family and friends. They can have fun filming themselves acting out a play or make an instructional video to teach a grandparent how to play their favorite video game.

4. Coronavirus quarantines and your legal rights: 4 questions answered

By Latisha Nixon-Jones, Visiting Legal Research and Writing Professor, University of Oregon

A woman at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago gives the thumbs-up upon arrival from an overseas flight./Scott Olson

The unknown is frightening. And with the spread of a deadly and communicable disease – the coronavirus is both – individual liberties may be temporarily sidelined to protect the larger community.

Indeed, history has shown us that whenever the United States has encountered a biological threat, the government invariably weighs individual freedoms against the compelling need to protect the rest of us from a widespread epidemic. More often than not, a clampdown on civil liberties occurs.

As a disaster law scholar, I study vulnerable populations during various stages of disaster response. In the age of coronavirus, people are asking me questions about their rights. Here are some answers.

1. I had contact with someone who has the coronavirus. Am I required to go into quarantine or isolation?

The answer: It depends. The Constitution gives states the powerto police citizens for the health, safety and welfare of those within its borders. This means states have the right to quarantine an individual, community or area to protect the surrounding community. With testing supplies in limited quantity and high demand, citizens are strongly encouraged to self-isolate. However, if you are a citizen who came into contact with a person with the coronavirus in a different country and then flew home, CDC officials at the airport have the right to detain you and force you into quarantine.

That said, quarantine and isolation laws vary widely, as do the consequences of breaking them.

In some states – including California, Florida and Louisiana – breaking an order of quarantine or isolation can result in misdemeanor criminal charges. Jail time could be up to a year, along with penalties ranging from US$50 to $1,000.

Those under quarantine can have visitors, but physical interaction may be limited to prevent the spread of the disease. Limitations, depending on your state or local regulation, can include confining you to a specific physical space and barring physical touching, including hugging and kissing.

Quarantined individuals do have the right to challenge the quarantine order.

You can find a list of state laws about quarantine and isolation on the National Conference of State Legislatures website.

Federal, state and local governments have the power to enforce quarantines./Justin Paget

2. Who can enforce quarantines?

All three levels of government have the power to quarantine.

States can quarantine citizens who present with symptoms within their borders. Local governments can quarantine smaller communities or areas of individuals that present with the coronavirus symptoms. The federal government too has responsibilities; it has the power to prevent the entry and spread of communicable diseases from foreign countries.

And the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has the authority to detain and examine anyone arriving in the U.S. suspected of carrying the coronavirus. That includes passengers from airplanes, motor vehicles or ships.

The CDC can also issue a federal isolation or quarantine order, which allows state public health authorities to seek help from local law enforcement to administer and enforce the federal quarantine orders.

3. Under what circumstances can I be tested for coronavirus?

At this time, no legislation has been passed to create a legal right to testing.

You must contact your doctor to get approval to be tested. If you don’t have a doctor, contact your public health authority. Currently not everyone can be tested due to the shortage of tests.

The CDC website bases testing criteria on the following ailments: You have a fever; you develop virus symptoms; you recently traveled to an area with an ongoing spread of the virus; or you have been in contact with someone known to have the coronavirus.

But with the current shortage of tests, you still may not be able to be tested. As testing becomes available, the restrictions on testing may also change.

4. My state has declared a state of emergency; will that affect my rights?

According to the National Governors Association, as of March 17, “State emergency/public health emergency declarations have been issued for each state and territory, as well as the District of Columbia.”

A state of emergency allows a state to activate its emergency or disaster plan, along with the accompanying resources. It also allows states to help with local response efforts, including providing money for personnel and supplies.

The state of emergency can affect your rights because states have used emergency declarations to close or restrict the hours of private businesses, close schools and public buildings, and enforce curfews for citizens.

There are federal-, state- and local-level declarations of emergency.

The power to declare a federal state of emergency is given to the president under the Stafford Act and the National Emergencies Act.

In Oregon, the governor used its state of emergency, according to the Associated Press, to activate “reserves of volunteer emergency health care personnel, especially important in rural areas,” develop guidelines for private businesses and aid employees by defining the coronavirus as a valid cause for sick leave. The addition of the sick leave definition will allow employees to take leave to care for their own sickness or for an immediate family member.

5. Coronavirus pandemic is a disaster for the world, but a few good things might emerge from it

By Charles Foster, Fellow of Green Templeton College, University of Oxford

To be clear, and in the hope of heading off some trolls, I would like to make two observations. First, of course I don’t welcome the epidemic. It will cause death, worry, inconvenience and great physical and economic suffering. Lives and livelihoods will be destroyed. The burden will fall disproportionately on the old, the weak and the poor.

And second, these suggestions are rather trite. They should be obvious to reasonably reflective people of average moral sensibility.

That said, here goes:

1. It will make us realise that national boundaries are artificial

The virus doesn’t carry a passport or recognise frontiers. The only way of stopping its spread would be to shut borders wholly, and not even the most rabid nationalists advocate that. It would mean declaring that nations were prisons, with no one coming in or out – or at least not coming back once they’d left. In a world where we too casually assume that frontiers are significant, it doesn’t do any harm to be reminded of the basic fact that humans occupy an indivisible world.

Cooperation between nations is essential to combating the epidemic. That cooperation is likely to undermine nationalist rhetoric.

2. It will make us realise that people are not islands

The atomistic billiard-ball model of the person – a model that dominates political and ethical thinking in the west – is biologically ludicrous and sociologically unsustainable. Our individual boundaries are porous. We bleed into one another and infect one another with both ills and joys. Infectious disease is a salutary reminder of our interconnectedness. It might help us to recover a sense of society.

3. It may encourage a proper sort of localism

Internationalism may be boosted. I hope so. But if we’re all locked up with one another in local quarantine, we might get to know the neighbours and the family members we’ve always ignored. We might distribute ourselves less widely, and so be more present to the people around us.

We might even find out that our local woods are more beautiful than foreign beaches, and that local farmers grow better and cheaper food than that which is shipped (with the associated harm to the climate) across the globe.

4. It may encourage altruism

Exigencies tend to bring out the best and the worst in us. An epidemic may engender and foster altruistic heroes.

5. It may remind us of some neglected constituencies

Mortality and serious illness are far higher among the old, the very young, and those suffering from other diseases. We tend to think about – and legislate for – the healthy and robust. The epidemic should remind us that they are not the only stakeholders.

6. It may make future epidemics less likely

The lessons learned from the coronavirus epidemic will pay dividends in the future. We will be more realistic about the dangers of viruses crossing the barriers between species. The whole notion of public health (a Cinderella speciality in medicine in most jurisdictions) has been rehabilitated. It is plain that private healthcare can’t be the whole answer. Much has been learned about the containment and mitigation of infectious disease. There are strenuous competitive and cooperative efforts afoot to develop a vaccine, and vaccines against future viral challenges are likely to be developed faster as a result.

7. It might make us more realistic about medicine

Medicine is not omnipotent. Recognising this might make us more aware of our vulnerabilities. The consequences of that are difficult to predict, but living in the world as it really is, rather than in an illusory world, is probably a good thing. And recognising our own vulnerability might make us more humble and less presumptuous.

8. Wildlife may benefit

China has announced a permanent ban on trade in and consumption of wildlife. That in itself is hugely significant from a conservation, an animal welfare, and a human health perspective. Hopefully other nations will follow suit.

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