Public Health Professor Albert Ko on protecting yourself against coronavirus

Ko, an epidemiologist and expert in infectious diseases, discusses the do’s and don’ts of stopping COVID-19 from spreading.


Do’s Don’ts
  • Practice sound hand hygiene (use the five-step approach: wet, lather, scrub, rinse, dry).

  • Practice proper respiratory hygiene (cover coughs and sneezes with a tissue and dispose properly).

  • Routinely disinfect surfaces commonly touched by other people.

  • Avoid contact with people who are known to be sick.

  • Consult your health care provider when you develop symptoms of cold or flu and stay home unless advised to seek medical attention.

  • Wearing a facemask should be reserved for when you are sick and in proximity to others (to avoid infecting them) or if advised by your health care provider.

  • Get the flu vaccine.

  • Rush out to buy facemasks. The common surgical facemasks are not effective in preventing an uninfected person from being infected.

  • Go outside or into public if you’re sick.

Q&A with Professor Albert Ko

Dr. Albert Ko
Dr. Albert Ko

What should everyday people be doing to prevent infection?

The best practice right now is to do what we do for flu and other respiratory infections. These infections are transmitted by respiratory droplets which can spread by coughing or sneezing. In addition, a person can be infected by coming in close contact with and touching an ill person or surfaces that have been contaminated with respiratory droplets of an ill person. What we can do to prevent that is good hand hygiene. Wash your hands multiple times each day. The second thing is to disinfect surfaces commonly touched by people to kill the virus.

What should we clean with?

Common household products such as Windex and bleach are both highly effective.

Should people rush out to buy facemasks?

Wearing an over-the-counter facemask when you’re healthy is ineffective against this and other viruses. These type of masks (typically sold at hardware and department stores) are more effective when worn by somebody who is infected. When someone is coughing and sneezing, a mask reduces, but does not completely prevent, transmission to others.

How long can the virus survive on surfaces?

We don’t know exactly how long the new coronavirus can survive on surfaces. But viruses in the same family can survive for up to 9 days. So, that is why cleaning counters and other surfaces such as phones and doorknobs is so important.

What are some other fallacies that should be dispelled?

One of the things that’s most commonly asked is whether you can get coronavirus in the mail or can get it from food that’s been shipped overseas from places where coronavirus is present. There is no evidence to suggest that the virus can be transmitted in these ways since it doesn’t survive for long periods or under harsh environmental conditions. What’s more important is cleaning surfaces that people frequently touch.

What can be done to treat coronavirus if infected?

We presently don’t have drugs for the coronavirus but clinical trials are being performed to identify effective treatments. For people who have coronavirus, treatment for now is limited to supportive care: Plenty of bedrest, staying home and taking anti-fever (such as Tylenol) and cold medicines.

A person washing their hands with soap and water
“Wash your hands multiple times each day.” (Photo credit: Dan Renzetti)

Who is most at risk for, and most susceptible to, coronavirus?

Older people are most at risk. What we’ve seen is that the people who died of coronavirus in China are generally around 60 years of age and older. People who have other medical conditions such as heart disease or lung disease are also at heightened risk, as well as people who are immuno-suppressed or taking treatment which depresses the immune response. People who have had or have cancer are also at heightened risk.

What symptoms should people watch for?

One of the big problems with coronavirus is that it starts out just like any other respiratory illness. In many cases it starts with a fever, weakness, muscle pains and congestion. Coronavirus is very difficult to differentiate from similar infections, so one thing we recommend is that people who are feeling sick or under the weather consult their health care providers and follow their recommendations on whether to stay home or come into the clinic or hospital.

Will people need to be isolated if they may have come in contact with an individual who has been infected with the new coronavirus? And if so how long?

This is an ongoing discussion. At this point, these people are recommended to stay at home if instructed by their health care provider or public health official. In this case, individuals are recommended to stay at home for 14 days, which covers the period that a person will become ill after being infected with the virus. But these recommendations may change and people should follow the current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines. Regardless of whether a person has come in contact with an individual who has been found to be infected with the coronavirus or not, they should stay home if they are ill.

Are children less susceptible to coronavirus?

One thing that is quite peculiar about this disease— and different from influenza—is that very few children and young adults have gotten sick so far. There have been relatively few cases in people under 20 years old. We don’t know if these young people are infected and have very mild symptoms that go unnoticed or have no symptoms at all.

Learn more about Dr. Ko and his research.

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Part of the In Focus Collection: Yale responds to COVID-19