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Covid-19: How to keep safe in schools, supermarkets and public transport

Make sure your mask is comfortable on your face, covers your nose and mouth, and is secure..
Make sure your mask is comfortable on your face, covers your nose and mouth, and is secure..
Image: 123RF / maridav

Lockdown is easing and pupils will be returning to schools. However, in some parts of the country the number of Covid-19 cases is escalating.

It’s an anxious time, and there are likely to be multiple outbreaks of Covid-19 over the next two years, unless a vaccine becomes available sooner.

If we are to live our lives, there are no guarantees against infection. It’s all about reducing risk to ourselves and others by not becoming infected over a very short period of time, as this would overwhelm our health-care services.

We must also protect the most vulnerable in our communities (the elderly and those with chronic medical conditions) from severe illness and death.

The things we can do to reduce the chance of becoming infected with any pathogen are rarely foolproof. It’s important to understand that even if all the advice listed here is followed, the chances of being infected remain, but they will be lower and the rate of spread of the virus will be slowed.

There is no shame in being infected with any infectious disease, coronavirus included. It doesn’t mean you have poor hygiene or have necessarily been careless if you become infected.

If you are infected, you can still take steps to reduce the risk of passing the virus to other people.

Whenever you are outside  your home, there are key steps you can take to reduce your risk of being infected, and lowers the risk of you infecting other people.

These include:

Social distancing: This means physically keeping a distance of 1.5 metres or more from other people whenever possible, thereby reducing the chance of droplets containing a virus when they breathe or cough from being inhaled or landing on your skin and being transferred to your eyes, mouth and nose when you touch your body and your face.

Hand hygiene: Washing your hands with soap and water or alcohol-based hand sanitiser is very important to reduce the chance of you inadvertently transferring a virus from contaminated surfaces to your eyes, mouth and nose. Carry hand sanitiser with you at all times, if possible, and perform hand hygiene after touching items in public places, such as shops, malls and public transport.

Keep your hands away from your face: One of the main ways we become infected with the coronavirus is when we touch our mouth, nose and eyes with contaminated hands. Learn not to touch your face when out and about, and as little as possible even at home.

Masking: Wearing a cloth mask is more about collective responsibility than protecting yourself. The principle is that the cloth mask will reduce the spread of virus from people who are infected.

As 50% to 80% of people who are infected with the coronavirus will not show any signs of illness, but can still transmit the virus, it is essential that we all wear a cloth mask when out in public. In that way, we are all protecting each other.

Make sure your mask is comfortable on your face, covers your nose and mouth, and is secure. Once you put it on, you don’t want to touch it until you get home and take it off. Don’t lower it to speak to people in person and/or on your phone. If you do touch the outside of the mask, wash your hands immediately.

How to reduce infections in supermarkets

Plan your shopping so you need to go less often. Practise social distancing (for example,  keep the shopping trolley between you and the next person), carry hand sanitiser whenever possible (or make good use of it if it is provided in stores), and wear a cloth mask at all times. Keep your hands away from your face.

Don’t touch lots of items. The days of testing the fruit and vegetables before buying them are over, for now. If you touch an item, consider buying it.

If you need to cough or sneeze, turn your head away from other shoppers and the products, and do it into your elbow if you can.

When you get home, wash your hands and your mask

If you manage a store, make sure there are markers 1.5m apart for shoppers at strategic points, such as queues and at the tills.

In bigger stores, consider arranging staff into teams to reduce the number of contacts between workers. Make sure your staff are educated about social distancing and hand hygiene, and try to arrange the staff common area to enable distancing.

Make sure frequently touched surfaces such as door handles, computer equipment and other surfaces are wiped frequently with disinfectant, and that floors, shelves  and other surfaces are cleaned at least twice a day (standard household cleaners are fine).

Make sure there’s soap in the toilets, and it is a good idea for wipes to be available to clean toilet flushing handles.

Control the number of people who enter the shop. Insist that shoppers wear masks and make sure that when people enter the store, a staff member sprays an approved alcohol-based hand sanitiser on their hands and/or a touch-free hand sanitiser dispenser is available and kept well-stocked.

At work

If you work in a shop, all the rules that apply to shoppers apply to you too.

We are social animals so it’s easy to forget the rules, especially during lunch and tea breaks, which can be staggered and taken in teams to reduce mixing. These are high-risk times of the day, so be vigilant. Please do not go to work if you feel unwell, but call your line manager or your provincial hotline for advice.

Encourage employees not to come to work if they are feeling ill. Screen employees when they come to work every day by asking if they have flu-like symptoms. Ensure they have masks and hand sanitisers. Taking temperatures is probably pointless because fever is not a universal symptom in infected persons, but it doesn’t do any harm either.

If an employee tests positive for Covid-19, ask staff members to step forward to decide their level of risk and whether they need to quarantine. Having arranged staff into teams could limit the number who  have to quarantine.

What not to do

There are also some things that are unnecessary, or even potentially harmful.

Disinfection tunnels are a no-no. Under no circumstances should shops be spraying staff or customers with disinfectants, other than hand sanitiser directly on to the hands.

Besides being of no significant value in reducing virus transmission, they can cause skin and eye irritations, and affect your lungs.

Another waste of money are "deep cleanses" offered by some companies. Normal cleaning is fine. There is no need to close a shop just because a staff member has tested positive.

In some supermarkets people are using full face visors instead of masks. The problem with these is that breath condenses on the inside of the visors and can drip onto products. They’re probably okay for staff who are not handling products, but universal masking is more appropriate.

How to reduce your risk on public transport

Try to use public transport only when necessary. Wearing a mask and carrying hand sanitiser are vital. Try to avoid taxis, buses or train carriages that are full. If your mode of transport is becoming full, kick up a fuss.

It’s impossible to keep 1.5m away from people in taxis, but at the same time taxi drivers must follow regulations about the number of passengers they are allowed to carry.

It’s best to travel with windows open to increase air exchanges and therefore dilute the amount of potential virus droplets inside the vehicle. That isn’t easy as we enter winter.

Sanitise your hands after receiving money. Avoid chatting to others when in public transport and any over-crowded place as virus-contaminated droplets are released even when talking.

Transport owners and managers should wash vehicle interiors at least twice a day (standard cleaning products are fine).

As with supermarkets, no customers or staff should be sprayed with disinfectants, but all customers should be offered a squirt of hand sanitiser upon entering a taxi, bus or train carriage.

How to reduce your risk at school

While people of schoolgoing age are much less likely to become very ill from Covid-19, it’s equally important to focus on key aspects of prevention to reduce transmission between their peers, teachers and family members.

Planning is needed to reduce risk across the school: classrooms, staff rooms, food preparation, eating areas, change rooms, toilets and so on.

Universal masking should be standard, especially for children older than five years.

Facilities should be made available to perform regular hand hygiene. Regularly used surfaces should be disinfected often, including desks, chairs, computer mice, keyboards, door and locker handles, and so on.

Staff members should have their own blackboard dusters and chalk.

Teachers should avoid gathering for tea and lunch breaks, as they are more likely to infect each other than to be infected by a child. Staff meetings should ideally be held in an open area while maintaining social distancing.

Teachers should maintain distance from pupils wherever possible. Although this might be more challenging for early childhood development and special needs schools, if teachers wear a face mask or visor and do regular hand hygiene they will reduce the risk of infecting children.

Many schools are overcrowded. As pupils return it may be a good idea to split them into groups that come to school every alternate week. Yes, this may mean reducing the syllabus this year, but that’s not a catastrophe. Minimise non-essential activities where social distancing isn’t possible.

On the first day pupils return, ensure every single child is taught about Covid-19 in an age-appropriate manner, as well as the prevention measures they must take. Explain the reasons behind what we are asking pupils to do. Also reassure them that children are fortunate because they rarely develop a severe illness when infected with this virus .

Disinfection tunnels should not be used, nor should large-scale environmental spraying of communal areas. It’s also unnecessary to close the school every time a pupil or staff member tests positive. If a pupil or staff member tests positive, follow the advice listed for supermarkets..

Teenagers will be teenagers. It is pointless and cruel to stop them from playing games like soccer and the usual things  teenagers do. The idea is to counsel them on the need to minimise physical contact, not eradicate it and destroy the fun of childhood.

Sticking to all this advice 100% of the time is impossible, but the more diligently we all apply these measures, the more we reduce the risk of contracting Covid-19 and infecting others.

Mendelson is professor of infectious diseases and head of the division of infectious diseases and HIV medicine at Groote Schuur Hospital in Cape Town.

Mehtar is an infection prevention and control specialist at Stellenbosch University and head of the IPC unit at Tygerberg Hospital, Cape Town 

Madhi is professor of vaccinology at Wits University in Gauteng.

Geffen is GroundUp’s editor.