How to Not Catch Covid-19 (As Best We Know Now)
If you’re looking for rules to follow in a pandemic, then the first rule is this: Information will change, be ready to change with it. In a world where most of humanity’s pain is self-inflicted, not knowing how the virus works has been one of the hardest things for many people, including many governments, to come to terms with.
In this age of technology and wonders, we’re used to right answers, even when people don’t make the right decisions. But in the middle of a crisis like this, often there aren’t any right answers, or they emerge slowly and stay fuzzy while people study the situation. Without knowledge at the level of experts, we’re all stuck making do for ourselves, forest trackers in an alien forest, who aren’t even real trackers. This leaves us the constant task of trying to understand what’s dangerous and what will keep us safe.
The problem with everyone assessing risk on their own is that we’re only used to assessing risk for ourselves, if we do it at all. We are bad at extending risk to our loved ones, much less the statistically distant people who could be maimed or killed by the random advance of an unknowable protein lego block of destruction, copying itself billions or trillions of times, weeks or months after we have taken some invisible and forgotten action that allowed that disaster to happen.
To cope, we need to learn ways of thinking about this disease and how it affects our bodies and our communities. That will serve far better than memorizing where we need to wear masks or when restaurants and bars are supposed to close. We need to learn principles of transmission, and then we’ll have context for learning rules.
Learning to Think About Covid-19 Transmission
Viruses are deeply weird, and that often makes talking about them difficult. They are not cells, not alive in the normal sense of the word, but they can cause a myriad of behaviors in their living hosts. Transmission happens when enough SARS-CoV-2 viruses leave one person and get into another person before they are inactivated, which is a word we use for dead when we’re talking about a thing that maybe isn’t strictly speaking alive. Viruses can’t reproduce like everything from a bacteria to humans do, and they don’t have much of their own energy. Coronaviruses are tiny fat-protein balls covered in spikes that are essentially cellular lockpicks. They have to bounce against the right little lock on the outside of a cell with their little lockpick-spike before they fall apart to be a problem, to cause disease.
No one can quite say if once they’re dead, they’re dead like an unlucky raccoon or dead like a Samsung in a toilet, but for the purposes of whether you catch Covid-19, it’s the same. To be clear about our terms: SARS-CoV-2 is a virus, Covid-19 is the disease the virus causes in humans.
When SARS-CoV-2 gets into somebody, it tricks cells into making copies of itself until the cell dies and falls apart, releasing millions or billions of copies of SARS-CoV-2: more fat-protein tinker toys covered in lockpicks. To keep finding new cells, it has to get back out of our bodies, which means tricking us, and our bodies, into doing things that let it get back out of the now-infected human body. This is an evolutionary strategy that comes from everything alive trying to kill viruses as fast as possible for probably around a billion years. That’s a lot of time to get good at something, even if you have the intelligence of a tinker toy.
This is a very old war we’re in.
The virus has evolved to get out of one person and into the next fast and hard. If someone’s coughing, sure that’s going to expel more virus, but one of the main things we’ve learned is this microscopic bastard spreads when it’s asymptomatic and presymptomatic, so if someone is talking loudly or singing their favorite karaoke song or yelling about their rights to not wear a mask, they are likely to be spreading more than they will be when they’re coughing a week later, because the highest viral load appears to happen before the onset of symptoms, in most people, probably. For all practical purposes, it only really comes out of your mouth and nose, in the tiny packets of water that make your breath moist. Bookmark that — tiny packets of water, floating through the air.
You might be able to get it another way, but you’d have to try.
There’s growing evidence that severity of disease at least somewhat depends on the initial viral dose. That means if there’s just a few viruses your body can learn about them and start fighting them off when they’re more in the thousands or millions than the billions, quadrillions, or other silly numbers. When there’s a lot of virus, the body can get overwhelmed and confused and start attacking itself, which seems to be how most people die, when they are dying of Covid-19. This is what makes Dexamethasone and other steroids so good at saving lives: they ratchet down immune response.
That’s also why you don’t want to use them early on, when you’re still counting on the immune system learning about SARS-CoV-2 and sending out its tiny killer drones to take care of the virus, gangster style.
If that all happens fast enough, you might not suffer much disease. To be clear, not suffering symptoms doesn’t mean you haven’t been infected, or even that you’re not infectious. It doesn’t even mean there’s not going to be long term consequences, we don’t know that, and won’t before the long term. To say you aren’t suffering from disease in this context when you’re positive for SARS-CoV-2 is the same as being asymptomatic or presymptomatic. This is also why vaccinated people need to still wear masks, hand sanitize, and observe social distance. We haven’t studied if the vaccines reduce transmission, or reduce it enough. We’ve been too busy trying to get them out fast enough to stop the mass dying. It’s likely they do, but don’t risk your life or the lives of others on a random journalist’s “it’s likely to help” regarding transmission rates for vaccinated people, especially when she won’t risk anything herself. Still, it’s likely. We need to study vaccination and transmission specifically.
But with small doses, or vaccinated people, there may be less chances of severe disease or transmission.
Covid-19 probably isn’t that simple because nothing about biology is simple, but it is something we’ve seen with other viruses. With this virus we’ve also seen reinfection, long chronic disease, and damage all over the body without any clear sense of whether it is going to heal or not. It could, in the words of one noted orator, simply go away one day. But we could also be looking at global epidemics of chronic fatigue, heart damage shortening lives, renal failure, brain damage, or even male infertility. We just don’t know yet — and that’s biology. You pays your money, you takes your chances. Nothing about biology means we’re promised a happy ending to this story, or any ending at all. I dislike long odds with a nasty new virus, and have suggested to those I love, and even those I don’t, that we not tangle with this wee beastie.
Don’t catch this. It’s bad. It could turn out to be real bad in a few years. If you have caught it, I’m sorry. But don’t catch it again.
So, how do you not get Covid-19?
Your goal is to protect your respiratory T, which is your eyes, nose, and mouth. That’s how you catch it — it’s not getting in through your ears or skin or butthole or whatever. There are two main ways the virus can breach your T: Float on in, or get carried in on your damn dirty fingers. Your eyes connect to your respiratory tract through the tear ducts, and while it’s not the easiest and most direct way to become infected, it does happen. This is why PPE includes eye protection.
While I understand why people wear space suits when they work in a Covid ward, in theory the only thing you need to protect is that respiratory T, from the air, and from being touched by something covered in viruses. You are probably not intubating people in a Covid-19 ward, and in the course of a normal day, if you wear a mask, maybe eye protection, you keep your hands clean and you remember to not touch your face, you’ll have a hard time catching the virus.
It is important to understand that viruses don’t really float on in on their own to your gaping respiratory orifices. They don’t have little tiny virus wings, or virus jets, or teleportation abilities. They leave the body in water mist. They don’t even have the ability to leave the tiny droplets they travel in. They just go where the mist droplets go. In the case of a large droplet, that’s quickly towards the ground, generally within 6 feet or 2 meters, which is where that distancing rule comes from. In the case of smaller ones, even microscopic mists, the little droplets can still be cruise ships for viruses. Even the heat coming off your skin can loft the smaller droplets high up, like an improbable sky ship from a Miyazaki film. This is why ventilation is so important — it lets you dilute all the little microscopic sky ships of water teeming with even tinier viruses, bundled together in their watery transport.
In moist, humid air, the droplets often hit each other and merge, and as they do they become heavier and fall to the ground. In dry air, they’re more likely to split apart, staying aloft, or even being driven up higher off of thermals coming off your coffee or your computer or your head. This gives those droplets more chances to get into your respiratory T. That’s why humid air is better than dry air.
As many people have breathlessly noted on the internets, the ickle tiny virus itself is smaller than the holes in a respirator or N95, much less cloth masks. N95 masks have an electrostatic charge to catch really small things, but honestly most of the time, you’re not trying to stop the viruses, you’re trying to stop the watery airships they travel in, which is why a mask with a hole bigger than a virus can usually stop a virus.
If you imagine all the air going back and forth as you breathe, it’s not impossible that one side of that mask (or the other) is going to be covered in crashed virus droplet airships, full of SARS-CoV-2 viruses waiting to get one of their lock picks jammed in a cell’s lock.
Put a mask on when you leave the house. Leave it on, and try not to touch it. Also, carry hand sanitizer with you when you leave the house. Hand sanitizer is key to wearing a mask, and not getting the virus in your respiratory T.
If you’re going out and grocery shopping, taking a bus, getting something from the hardware store, or anything where you may suddenly not be in control of the air around your respiratory T, the surface most likely to get contaminated is the outside of your mask. The area most important to keep uncontaminated is the inside of that same mask. Conversely, if you’re already infected and don’t know it because you’re one of the lucky asymptomatics, the inside of your mask is a biohazard that can kill some of the people around you.
Think of it this way: After you leave the house, the outside of the mask is lava. Use the straps to take it on and off, because it’s lava now.
But if you have to touch it, adjust it, etc., use hand sanitizer. Hand sanitizer, in this extended and slightly tortured metaphor, is antilava. Adjust, sanitize. When you’re getting ready to take off the mask, sanitize. When it’s off, sanitize again. When you’re thinking about how to store your mask, keep in mind the mask is lava, and it won’t de-lava until it’s been cleaned or a few days have passed.
When you’re done wearing it, either throw it out, or put it away in something that keeps it from touching anything. It may be lava, but the kind of lava that stores safely in a ziplock bag, or just a bowl you leave near the door.
After sitting for a few days (I go with four, and have four bowls), the virus is unlikely to be viable and the surface of the mask won’t be infectious. It’s not made of lava anymore! You may safely reuse it. This is why I suggest having several masks in rotation at any given time, and letting them sit between uses. The universe is full of entropy, might as well put it to work for you.
I also hand wash my masks briefly and gently in warm soapy water and hang them dry. The same thing that works for hands works for masks. You don’t have to worry about the hospital problem of sterilizing PPE for two reasons: you’re only trying to protect yourself from SARS-CoV-2, not the host of teeming infectious baddies that hospitals are always fighting pandemic or not, and you don’t have to reuse your mask on your next shift in the Covid-19 ward.
Don’t Wear a Mask With a Valve
Those are intended for particulate pollution, like smoke. They are not made for preventing disease transmission. They don’t stop you from spreading anything you might have. If someone is wearing a valve mask, treat them as if they were maskless for the purpose of exposure. If you have a valve mask and you really want to use it, you can put something over the valve. You can tape it down, or wear a secondary mask. But in general, just avoid valved masks and those who wear them.
But given that one caveat, the best type of mask is whatever you are willing to wear.
The Type of Mask You Will Wear
I have made hundreds of masks, and purchased more. I have furnished masks to people across two continents and talked to a lot of people about their mask experiences.
Today, my number one concern for masks is comfort, followed by style. In my experience of talking endlessly about viruses, disease transmission, and masks, people stop wearing them correctly mostly because they’re annoying. The only kind of annoying things humans keep wearing are stylish things.
If masks aren’t comfortable when worn correctly, people won’t, and often will come up with unrelated reasons why they don’t need them. But if you dig deep enough they almost always come back to hating discomfort. If masks are stylish, hip, cool, or funny, people will wear them, possibly even if they’re uncomfortable.
No one has the market cornered on the perfect mask. There is no right mask, not even in the world of N95s, where people have to fit test masks to see if they can wear them safely, because faces and heads, and preferences, are wildly different.
One of the most important and overlooked part of mask compliance, in my experience, is how you attach it to your face. Are you a ties-behind-the-head person? Is your hair too much for anything but elastic behind your ears? Do you need to switch, when it starts feeling like your ears are getting pulled off? Do you want elastic bands behind your head to make everything better? Think about these things, and do what works for you, even if it’s having several different types in rotation
Does your mask say anything about you beyond Hi I’m wearing a mask? What are you proud of? What goes with the way you dress and the person you want to project?
Do you like wearing your mask? Is it cool? Do you want a Black Lives Matter mask? Or a Trump Forever mask? Do you want a Chanel mask, or an LA Lakers mask? Get the ones you like, get a few, swap between them. If one of the things that makes you feel stylish and comfortable is knowing there’s real filtration because you don’t want anything to do with this nightmare tinkertoy, look for a mask with a filter layer, usually electrostatically charged non-woven polypropylene, which is what you find in most surgical masks and N95 or equivalent masks.
No fighting technique beats not being there when the blow falls. No masking technique or sanitizing routine is better than never being exposed to SARS-CoV-2 in the first place. The only way to do that is to not be near other people who are near still other people.
This is most the controversial, difficult, economically and emotionally crushing part of staying safe, keeping others safe, and stopping this pandemic.
It’s also the only thing that works.
If we did this one thing, we’d be fine. None of the variants would threaten us, there would be no need for the rest of this article, and thousands of people wouldn’t be dying every day.
There is nothing that replaces distance. Pretending what we’re doing is probably good enough when we’re not distancing will also kill people. We often ask ourselves the wrong question about risky behavior in a respiratory pandemic. We think about how much we’re willing to risk for ourselves. But that’s not the right way to think about risk. Before you put yourself in a position to enable transmission, ask yourself this: are you willing to kill to do this? Are you willing to torture someone to death through slow suffocation while they lay alone in a hospital bed and never see their loved ones again? Because statistically, you are much more likely the kill someone than you are to die, unless you are elderly and/or extremely physically compromised. In a respiratory pandemic, the statement “I’d kill for a night out on the town” is quite literal. You might never know, you might never get caught, but it’s wrong to kill people, even strangers. Don’t kill people. Don’t risk killing people. Do your part to kill this pandemic instead.
Bubbles work. By bubbles, I mean the practice of expanding the number of people inside your own social distance, essentially creating a pandemic “household” larger than a single house. But bubbles working comes with the caveat that everyone in the bubble respects the bubble. You can safely be close to a group of people who are sufficiently distant from everyone else. There is no theoretical limit to a bubble size, and traditionally, they are referred to as a Cordon Sanitaire when meant to keep in a disease, or sometimes a reverse cordon sanitaire when keeping a disease out. This kind of bubble can be two or three households, or up the size of a nation or region, in the cases of places like South Korea, Vietnam, Australia, and New Zealand. It was cordon sanitaires that kept disease in or out, and let people live normally in these countries, despite the very different political and economic systems these countries have. The rest of the world’s inability to choose and keep cordon sanitaires has caused us endless rounds of lockdowns and uncountable deaths and human misery. Bubbles or cordon sanitaire doesn’t even require total closure, as many countries have also shown. a 10–14 day quarantine with testing can allow people in and out without risking anyone’s lives.
There are a lot of folks working in jobs that require reducing safe distance, vital jobs and keep people alive and society functioning. People on the front lines should have N95 or equivalent masks, eye protection, and the training to use all of it correctly. It’s an indictment of modern society that they, and other front line workers, don’t, but that’s also why I try not to use the PPE that should be going to them.
Killing the gross virusy Covid-19 bits
We’ve heard about UV robots and hand sanitizer and injecting bleach and mists of disinfectant sprayed by sinister bunny suits down empty streets at night. But it’s not that complicated. The secret sauce to killing SARS-CoV-2 is soap. It’s a biological tinker toy made of fats and protein, just like a very, very tiny burger dripping. How do you clean burger grease off things? Soap and water. Anyone who has washed their hands or done the dishes knows that soap and water dissolve fats and washes them away. Harsh sanitizers and killer light waves are great, but they aren’t as great as a bar of soap.
I know it’s pretty neat to live in an era of instant global communication and commerce, but it’s even better to live in an era of soap.
Sanitizer, UV, bleach, and hydrogen peroxide vapor are great for situations in which soap and water aren’t feasible. But you — you can just use soap and water, at least when you get home.
Will all of this keep you safe? Eh, probably. No promises. In an era where we’re used to making most of our trouble for ourselves, it’s often hard for people to wrap their heads around some things being out of human control. Will the vaccines work well enough with the new variants? They’ll probably help quite a bit, but nothing about biology means humans are destined to win.
The thing about biology is that it’s one of the universe’s OGs. Like geology, it decides, and we adapt. The natural world can break the illusion that we’re in control any time it wants to. We’re amazing fast little creatures, wizzing about the surface of this planet on extreme fast forward from the perspective of the natural world, and it can make us feel powerful and in control of our planet.
But best believe, that’s an illusion. If you can accept that, this all gets a lot simpler to process, even though the universe does get scarier as well as more beautiful and awesome.
As long as the virus can infect new hosts, the virus will keep changing. Whatever was the ancestral form of coronaviruses, there’s potentially over 3000 coronaviruses alive and well in bats, cats, cattle and pigs that can all potentially cross over to humans. We’ve given our current disease to minks, dogs, gorillas, and of course, the monkeys we gave it to in order to study it.
We have no idea which other coronaviruses could jump to us, but it’s likely they will, since SARS-CoV-2 is the third deadly coronavirus to make the jump in the last 20 years. There’s even more viruses that could suddenly show up in other parts of nature. Hemorrhagic fevers like Ebola and Marburg, meningitises and encephalitises, and even The Worst: Yersinia pestis, aka the Plague, if it evolved an antibiotic-resistant form.
Bats are 20% of all mammals, and rodents are 40%. Just from that, without even more googling, I can tell you that most mammals are potential reservoirs for the next deadly pandemic, and potentially one much more deadly than this one. The more we push into nature, the more Covid-19-style surprises it has waiting for us. This was always inevitable, and epidemiologists and health departments knew it. Now, so do you. Practice thinking about this pandemic in useful ways, but also prepare yourself for next, and whatever curveball our beautiful little blue planet throws us after this.
Thanks to my Patrons on Patreon who support this work. If you’d like to see more, head over to my Patreon account.