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You can't wash your hands too often

I am a vulnerable older adult. If you’re reading this column, you may be as well. Our immune systems are more easily compromised as we age, and we are more likely to be diagnosed with chronic diseases.

If we have cardiac issues, diabetes, COPD, arthritis, etc., we are at greater risk of becoming ill from any lurking virus. For that reason, terms like “community spread,” referring to the COVID-19 virus and threats of “the potential for a pandemic,” need our full attention and potentially life-saving behavior changes.

In columns over the years, I’ve said things like, “You can never wash your hands too often,” followed by a specific reminder to “scrub your hands for 15 to 20 seconds; using lots of friction, warm water and antibacterial soap. Dry with a paper towel.”

I’ve encouraged buying hand sanitizer in six-packs and greeting people with elbow bumping instead of hand shaking during flu season.

New information suggests with novel coronavirus on the move and transmission yet to be fully understood, knuckle bumping might be the preferred way of greeting someone. I am thinking one knuckle preferably. You choose. Use that same knuckle to push an elevator button or tap on the TV remote. Keep that knuckle clean. Maybe use the hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes you have standing next to your box of tissues — near those paper towels. Speaking of tissues, may I suggest you replace sneezing into your elbow pit with sneezing into a tissue. Discard after one use.

Maybe we should — for the near term — just avoid touching people altogether in a public forum. Perhaps one option when encountering someone is a slight bow or a smiling nod of the head. The smiling part is particularly important. It reduces anxiety, and we certainly don’t need more of that in the atmosphere.

We are hearing a lot about protective N-95 respirator masks and a possible shortage. Lately there’s increasing reference to the need to prioritize available masks for use by health care workers caring for infected persons. Understood. One argument for wearing them is if you are someone who tends to touch your face and mouth a lot, the mask may deter you from doing that. Face touching is possibly a much bigger deal than any of us realized in terms of infection transmission. Pay attention to the fact that you do that — and then stop doing it.

One more thing about masks, Consider the fact that wearing a mask incorrectly may actually increase the risk of infection. The coronavirus is transmitted through droplets not through the air. Defer to science. Defer to the experts or your own physician. Go to cdc.gov or your local public health department website for the best information. Go frequently, as this situation is definitely evolving.

Once you know this stuff, you have a responsibility to share that knowledge. Think about the fact that every time you wash your hands in front of another person or do a knuckle bump, you could be educating others. Even saving a life.

Sharon Johnson is a retired Oregon State University associate professor emeritus. Reach her at sharon@rbtrv.org.