How to Stay Healthy and Germ Free When Commuting

As the coronavirus crisis continues to deepen, many people are finding that they, nevertheless, have to start going back to work. If you commute to a place of employment, you’ll need to take some precautions to help prevent contracting the virus that causes COVID-19.

Dr. Charles Bailey, medical director for infection prevention at St. Joseph Hospital and Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, says that how likely you are to get sick from commuting is based on a number of factors, including:

— The strategies put in place by transportation companies to reduce risk of infection.

— The number of COVID-19 infected patients within your community who are in a contagious phase of their infection at a particular time.

— The degree to which an individual passenger adheres consistently to practicing behaviors known to decrease the possibility of coronavirus spread, such as wearing a mask.

“Aside from selecting a transportation mode or provider that’s noted to be addressing COVID risk in a logical and consistent manner, a passenger can only impact their individual risk by how they choose to behave while in transit,” he says.

Even more directly, Dr. Anthony Barile, infectious disease medical director for Health First in Melbourne, Florida, says that “if CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) guidelines are not followed on public transportation, commuters could potentially be exposed to COVID-19, leading to an increase of new cases.”

[READ: How to Be Safe at Work.]

Moving Many People at Once

One of the key issues surrounding commuting and infection control is that the whole concept of public transportation relies on moving a large number of people together in small spaces.

“Public commuting on a crowded bus or subway does not allow for the appropriate distance needed for social distancing,” says Debra Goff, professor of pharmacy and infectious diseases specialist at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Standing or sitting 6 feet apart is next to impossible on a jam-packed subway or bus at rush hour.”

Another concern is that there’s a lot of “inconsistency with masking,” says Dr. Bruce Weng, infectious disease physician with Riverside University Health System — Medical Center in Moreno Valley, California.

While initial recommendations surrounding masking have changed, they are now very clear that anytime you’re in a public space, you should be wearing a mask or cloth face covering of some kind.

[SEE: How Does Coronavirus Spread?]

17 Ways to Stay Safe While Commuting

While staying safe and germ free on your commute might be challenging, especially if you’re on crowded public transportation, there are some things you can do to protect yourself. “Although these interventions are not fool-proof, they can help to curb and lower the chance of infection,” Weng says.

— Wear a mask.

— Practice good mask hygiene.

— Stay 6 feet away from others as much as possible.

— Talk to your employer about your schedule.

— Practice good hand hygiene.

— Touch as few surfaces as possible.

— Carry disinfecting wipes or hand sanitizer.

— Wear gloves.

— Wash your kit.

— Create a “quarantine” space.

— Board from the back.

— Open a window.

— Get educated.

— Investigate other transportation options.

— Pay attention to symptoms.

— Stay home if you’re ill.

— Take responsibility.

Wear a mask. “Wearing a mask is one of the most important things we can do when taking public transportation,” Barile says. ” Pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people can easily and unknowingly spread the virus to others if they aren’t wearing a mask. Masks catch the respiratory droplets expelled when we talk, sneeze or cough and limit the chances of those around us inhaling the droplets. The more people that wear masks when using public transit, the lower the risk.

Practice good mask hygiene. You should also wash your mask every day, and if you’re really being careful, use three: one to commute in with, one to wear during your time in the office and a third to commute home with. Store the used masks in a ziploc bag until you can put everyting in the wash and then sanitize the container if you plan to reuse it.

Stay 6 feet away from others as much as possible. “Depending on the time of day, this can be very difficult,” Barile says. But as much as possible, “make an effort to sit or stand as far apart from others as you can or avoid taking public transit during rush hours.” Social distancing helps you stay out of close contact with others and cuts down on person-to-person spread of not just the coronavirus, but indeed any disease.

Talk to your employer about your schedule. If you’re commuting during rush hour, that puts you into close proximity with lots of other people. But depending on your job, you might have the option to come in at a less busy time and leave at a different time, off peak hours. For example, if you usually work 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., will your employer let you shift to 7 to 3 or 11 to 7? Those alternate times might mean you have to encounter fewer people on your way to and from your workplace.

Practice good hand hygiene.Wash your hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds before leaving your home and as soon as you reach your destination,” Barile says.

Touch as few surfaces as possible. While you’re underway, “avoid touching your face and hard surfaces, like handrails and kiosks, if you can,” Barile says. Though the risk of transmission via surfaces seems somewhat less likely than via close contact with someone who’s infected, it’s still best to keep your hands clean, away from your face and eyes, and to touch as few surfaces as possible anytime you leave your home.

Carry disinfecting wipes or hand sanitizer. “And remember to use them after touching a surface, such a turnstile, ticket machines or overhead hand pulls,” Goff explains. Look for a hand sanitizer that’s at least 60% alcohol, and use it frequently when you’re unable to wash your hands. When you enter a bus or train, wipe down the seat and hand rails and any other surfaces you come into contact with. Carry a plastic bag to put used wipes in and dispose of them properly.

Wear gloves. If you don’t have wipes or hand sanitizer, use gloves that are either disposable or go immediately into the wash when you reach your destination.

Wash your kit. You should wash your clothes after each wear and wash or wipe down your work bag, purse, lunch sack and any other items you carry with you to and from work every day. This will help remove any virus particles you may have picked up along the way. It’s a pain, yes, but disinfecting everything after each trip is the best way to ensure you don’t bring the virus home with you.

Create a “quarantine” space. Many health care workers also recommend you leave all your belongings in a designated space just outside the home, such as in a large plastic tub in the garage, and take a shower as soon as you get home to ensure you’re not bringing pathogens inside. This may be overkill for anyone who’s not working in an emergency room or coming into certain contact with the virus, but if it offers you peace of mind, there’s no reason not to take these extra steps.

Board from the back. Many cities around the country have already implemented changes to how and where people can board and disembark from trains and buses. Boarding from the back keeps you well away from the driver, so to protect these hard-working essential workers, follow the instructions laid out by transportation service companies. After all, they are designed with your safety, as well as the safety of workers, in mind.

Open a window. If the bus or train has windows that are capable of opening but are shut, open them to help increase the flow of air in the space to help disperse any aerosolized virus particles that may be hanging around. It’s also important to note that many cities and public transportation companies have gone to great lengths to improve ventilation in their buses, cars and overall systems. Nearly all are also doing thorough, deep cleans on a regular basis to help limit the spread of the coronavirus. These retrofits and additional measures are intended to keep riders safer.

Get educated. This is a high-stress, emotional time, but Goff cautions that you need to stay rational and educate yourself on the coronavirus and how it spreads, so you can make smart decisions, rather than emotional ones. If you always wear a mask and do your best to keep your hands clean and keep your distance, your chances of getting sick are much reduced.

Investigate other transportation options. For many of us, public transport is the only way to get from point A to point B, but see if an alternative method is available. “For example, biking, walking or having someone you live with drive you can be safer alternatives,” Barile says. Roller skates, e-bikes, scooters and any number of other forms of conveyance have increased in popularity as people find creative ways to get around without being in close proximity to others. See what works for you.

Pay attention to symptoms. Weng urges public transportation riders to be “cognizant of personal symptoms. If you have symptoms potentially concerning for COVID-19, then you can help to protect and prevent spreading to others by staying home if possible.” Common symptoms include fever, fatigue, lost sense of taste or smell, a dry cough, shortness of breath, gastrointestinal issues such as diarrhea and joint pain.

Stay home if you’re ill. This should be a no-brainer by now, but for many people, it’s just not possible to forgo a day’s pay to stay home when sick. But to the best of your ability, when you’re ill, stay home to prevent passing whatever infection you have on to other people. Even if it’s not COVID-19, infectious diseases of all types, including the common cold, the flu and the chickenpox, spread from close, interpersonal contact. If you can limit that kid of contact, you’ll be doing your part to help others stay healthy. And if you’re already ill, that lowers your body’s immune response, so you’re less able to fight off the coronavirus if you are exposed.

Take responsibility. Bailey says that “taking personal responsibility for your own actions, primarily by following the well-publicized recommendations” surrounding how to commute, work and socialize safely can minimize your risk of getting COVID-19.

In addition to the actions commuters can take to protect themselves, Weng urges leaders of public transportation organizations to enact changes to protect public health. “Public transportation leaders need to establish and create situations on services where they block off seats or mark floors to help promote physical distancing. They could also potentially install automatic hand sanitizers, for example, to help people keep hands clean. They also need to provide an environment that will promote safe practices, such as limiting the number of passengers and increasing the frequency of routes for example if needed.”

[See: Myths About Coronavirus.]

Bottom Line

“We can’t live in a germ-free environment, but we can live in a cleaner, less germ-filled environment,” Goff says. Take care to keep your distance, wear a mask and keep your hands as clean as possible to help reduce the spread of the coronavirus and other pathogens.

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