Here’s how commuters can stay protected from coronavirus

Putting a little effort into prevention will go a long way
by Raymond Figuerres | Feb 4, 2020
PHOTO: Raymond Figuerres

 At the end of December 2019, a novel strain of coronavirus (initially known as nCoV, but know called COVID-19) was reported in Wuhan, China. A coronavirus is just one type of over 200 viruses that cause the common cold. This particular strain is related to the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome-coronavirus (SARS-CoV) of 2003 and the Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome-coronavirus (MERS-CoV) of 2012.

All of them were originally thought to be non-human-infecting strains, but cross-species infection—the transmission of diseases from one species to another, as in wild or domesticated animals to humans, and vice versa—is quite common. In most cases, the symptoms will be mild and the virus will not be transmitted within the same species, thus limiting spread. Unusually, spillover infections like these cause severe symptoms, or they may be more resistant to the new species host’s immune system. At its worst, the viral agent is resistant, easily transmitted, and lethal at the same time.

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The nCoV strain has limited human-to-human transmission and is less lethal than the previous epidemics. To put it in perspective, there have been 425 deaths confirmed globally as of writing, while the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that there are 290,000 to 650,000 deaths from the flu, or infection with the Influenza virus, every year despite a vaccine being available.

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With the global experience from SARS-CoV and MERS-CoV, and this strain’s relatively low virulence, international efforts have been effective at containing it. At this time, even with reported infections and a singular death in the Philippines, we’re far from an outbreak, which is defined as four cases of linked infections.

That said, putting a little effort into prevention will still go a long way, especially for commuters. This is why we’ve compiled some important tips and reminders to help keep you and the people around you safe from viral respiratory diseases when traveling using public transport. Check them out below.

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What types of mask should be worn?

Mode of transmission for the Wuhan nCoV is by droplets. Droplets are large particles containing the virus that are exhaled, coughed, or sneezed out by an infected individual. Because of their size, droplets rarely travel more than a few feet away, but they can stick to surfaces and remain infectious for a few hours depending on where they fall on and the ambient temperature.

Any type of mask or a nonporous facial barrier will work to prevent breathing in the fomite droplets or prevent the infected from spreading them. It’s not small enough to be carried and transmitted through the air. The virus can stay in your hands, but it can’t enter through your skin, so it’s more important to wash your hands often and avoid touching your face when you could bring the droplets in your hands closer to your nose and mouth. Once inhaled, they replicate inside respiratory cells very rapidly, thus the term ‘viral.’

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How often should I wash my hands and how do I do it?

Frequent handwashing, whenever possible, is the most effective prevention. Soap and water are all you need. You should remove jewelry and wristwatches, and wash above the wrists, up to the elbows, if you can. Thoroughly rub your palms, back of the hands, and in between the fingers and thumbs while singing the birthday song twice. That’s the recommended duration for washing your hands, or rubbing on hand sanitizers or 70% alcohol solutions. The latter two are effective options if you’re nowhere near a sink.

Can the virus be transmitted when your clothing comes into contact with public-transport seats or surfaces with viral particles on them?

The droplets may rub onto clothing; you could even bring it home and infect the most vulnerable members of the family: the very young, the very old, and the sick whose immune systems are already exhausted. When you get home, change your clothes, wash them or soak them, and take a bath before even greeting the above-mentioned family members. The virus survives longer on nonporous objects like metal and wood, but can remain contagious in porous objects like clothing for a few hours. If it is a warm sunny day, the virus will not last long outside a host organism’s cell. That’s why colds are common in the winter season.

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For motorcycle-taxi passengers who wear shared helmets, what safeguards must be taken to stay protected from the virus?

Helmets are intimate wear items—in my opinion, they should never be shared. Unlike a hat that sits on top of your head, you wear the helmet around your face. Droplets can easily saturate the helmet liner, which is made out of absorbent foam, even if an infected individual wears it only briefly. It’s worse with a full-face helmet—you’ll be inhaling huge doses of virions swirled around by air drawn into the helmet by the ventilating holes. Unless properly disinfected prior to use, chances of getting infected is high. When you often commute using motorcycle taxis, ideally, you should have your own personal helmet.

(We’ve reached out to Angkas to ask if it would allow passengers to use personal helmets in light of the current situation; the company requires passengers to use its provided helmets that conform with motorcycle-taxi safety standards.)

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What measures must be taken by those who ride public transport before and during the journey? What precautions can be taken inside a closed vehicle with strangers, like in GrabShare rides?

Wearing a mask is essential in a close-contact environment such as in a jeepney, GrabShare rides, or inside a crowded air-conditioned bus or train. Sitting or standing that close to others for long periods will unavoidably expose you to fomites. After touching taxi-door handles or grab rails, keep your hands away from your face before you have had a chance to wash them or disinfect them. Consider your hands full of viruses all the time. You wouldn’t want them to go viral inside your respiratory system.

Got any more tips you want to share? Drop them in the comments section.

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PHOTO: Raymond Figuerres
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