Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Fight coronavirus: No more elbow bumps! -- March 12, 2020 column


Like many others, I’m learning how to live in the time of coronavirus.

I was glad to hear handwashing is the first line of defense against the aggressive disease – until I learned I’ve been washing my hands wrong my whole life.

Simple handwashing is actually a seven-step process involving special attention to tops and bottoms of the hands, each finger and wrist and should last 20 seconds – long enough to sing the “Happy Birthday song” twice, not just once.

Fortunately, “Stayin’ Alive” by the BeeGees and “Jolene, Jolene” by Dolly Parton are among other tunes with 20-second choruses.

I feel guilty touching my face, which I still do countless times an hour, despite my best intentions.

Greetings and good-byes are now fraught with danger. I automatically accepted someone’s outstretched hand for a handshake on Capitol Hill the other day.

“We really shouldn’t,” I stammered.

“It’s OK! I have this!” he assured me, happily waving a bottle of hand sanitizer. 

Somehow, members of Congress and Hill staffers have oodles of hand sanitizer, while the rest of us haunt the empty aisles of CVS, waiting for restocking. But I digress.

If handshakes are 20th century relics, so are air kisses – and don’t even think about an “innocent” peck on the cheek or mouth kisses. Fist bumps are out, and, just as I was getting the hang of them, elbow bumps were too.  

Elbow bumps put us within a meter of each other, and that’s about twice as close as we should be, the director general of the World Health Organization said. Maintaining 6 feet from other people is best.  

“I like to put my hand on my heart when I greet people these days,” tweeted the director general, who has the splendid name Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Some members of Congress wave or give Spock’s Vulcan salute.

I’m learning a new vocabulary. “Social distancing” is the term for public health actions designed to contain contagion. When dozens of colleges and universities around the country suspend classes, that’s social distancing, not extended spring break.

Businesses are sending employees home to telework, canceling travel and large meetings. Clubs and volunteer organizations are also choosing to meet virtually or not at all.

The Gridiron Club, Washington’s premier journalism group, canceled its annual white-tie dinner and musical show lampooning politicians for only the second time in 135 years and the first time since 1942.  

The World Health Organization Wednesday declared COVID-19 a pandemic, meaning it is widespread around the world. More than 1,000 Americans have been diagnosed with COVID-19, according to Johns Hopkins University researchers. More than 30 people in the United States have died of the disease.

Many people without symptoms put themselves into self-quarantine after learning they had dinner or interacted in other ways with someone who has been infected.

We’ll likely see less of each other as more people go into personal isolation in months to come.

“Many people in the United States will, at some point in time, either this year or next be exposed to this virus, and there’s a good chance many will become sick,” Dr. Nancy Messonnier, director of the Centers for Disease Control’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, said Tuesday, but “we do not expect most people to develop serious illness.”

Most – about 80 percent – will get a mild case, but about 20 percent could get severely ill and die. The disease hits older people hardest, and CDC this week suggested people 60 and over avoid crowds, stock up on groceries and medications, and stay off cruise ships and long plane trips.

For the latest on the disease and staying healthy, avoid the bogus cures and lies on social media. Check out

Among the CDC’s tips besides washing, but not shaking, hands: Avoid sharing food and open windows at home, in offices, taxis and ride-shares and on buses. 

The irony, of course, is many offices, hotels and other commercial buildings are sealed tight so you can’t get a breath of fresh air.

Nor can we wave a magic wand and make coronavirus disappear. But we can learn how to reduce our chances of exposure and infection, and if we get sick: Stay home!

And since coronavirus doesn’t care if you’re a Democrat or Republican, this is a fight we must make together.

©2020 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

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