4 Tips for Avoiding COVID-19 and Staying Safe

world with covid-19

There are four simple concepts which will help you stay safe and avoid contracting Covid-19 as you begin to reenter society, and as things begin to open up.

  1. Proximity or closeness to other people outside your own household. A very safe distance is 10 feet, and adequately distance is 6 feet, and anything less than 3 feet of social distance is probably risky.
  2. How long you are in contact with those people. Studies of transmission suggest that a contact time of 30 minutes or more is risky, but in situations of close social distance anything more than five minutes may be risky. (If everyone is wearing a mask, safe contact times may be somewhat longer.)
  3. Whether the environment is confined or open, inside or outside, and if inside how large is the inside environment and is there good air circulation? Outside is almost always better than inside, and inside environments which are larger and have good air circulation are probably less risky than small and sealed environments like elevators. (Or small public restrooms.)
  4. Whether or not everyone is wearing a mask. Studies suggest that the use of masks can reduce transmission by 80 or 90%. That is why doctors and nurses always wear masks when treating sick Covid 19 patients. They also wear eye protection. The use of masks protects you from spreading coronavirus to other people, and also protects you from them spreading coronavirus.

When the more dangerous options among these four factors overlap, you are in peril.

For example, let’s say you decide to get a massage. The massage room is inside, very small, and the massage takes 90 minutes. This is a high-risk situation even if you and the masseuse are both wearing a mask. (And even higher risk if either is not wearing a mask.) You have close social distance, extended exposure, in a small and poorly circulated room, and perhaps the only safety factor is the wearing of masks.

In contrast, you go for a walk in your neighborhood. Other people are out walking but everyone respects at least a 6 foot social distance, and you do not stop to talk with people. Any contact is 6 feet away and lasts only a few seconds. This is a relatively safe situation regardless of the use of masks.

Let’s look at each factor separately.

Indoors versus outdoors

Japanese researchers looked at 110 people who had Covid-19. Only 12.5 percent passed the illness on if their only interactions with people were outdoors. But of those who interacted with people indoors, 75 percent infected other people. Out of the 22 people who met people indoors only six did not infect anyone else. But of the 88 people who met people only outdoors, 77 did not infect anyone. The reason for this appears to be that the tiny droplets that can infect you disperse very rapidly outside. So it appears that outdoor contact is not perfectly safe, but is six times safer than indoor contact.

Duration of contact

There is some interesting data from China and France in terms of likelihood of catching Covid-19 in various different indoor settings. The worst setting was the household where 13 percent of people contracted Covid-19 if someone in their household had it. The next most risky type of environment was public transport, which ranged from 2% to 12% depending on whether or not there was a super spreader event. (Super spreader events are those rare people that seem to be very efficient at spreading the virus.)

Particularly relevant was the finding that 7% of people who came into contact with an infected person in a restaurant dining environment contracted Covid-19. That’s pretty risky to avoid cooking at home! (Note that 85 coronavirus cases were linked on 6/28/20 to a SINGLE restaurant in Michigan, in a single week of operation! The restaurant had poor circulation, poor social distancing rules, and no air filters on ventilation.)

All the other indoor environments had about the same risk, 2%, and this included shared work or study spaces, schools, healthcare settings, and all other settings. The better the ventilation was the less likely transmission.

What about masks?

Masks are particularly helpful in high risk indoor situations, where they block the spread of droplets that can transmit Covid-19. Because the risk of infection is lower outdoors, especially if people are properly socially distancing, they may add very little benefit. But if you are in close contact with other people outdoors, masks may help significantly. This may be why in cities that had large Black Lives Matter demonstrations, there were relatively few outbreaks, as many of the protesters wore masks.

Large Events

Large events are particularly problematic because of super spreader individuals. Research from China and Hong Kong showed that 80% of new infections came from about 20% of people. These are called super spreaders, and we don’t really fully understand why some people are so infectious. But being in a large event such as a sporting event or concert makes it highly likely that there will be one or many super spreader individuals. Avoid these even if they reopen. (As reported on 6/28/20, Swiss authorities had to quarantine 300 people who attended a Zurich nightclub on 6/21/20 because of a super spreader individual.)

High-risk versus low risk situations

Here’s the deal with viral particles. We still don’t really know how many Covid-19 infectious viral particles it takes to get you sick. But some experts estimate that the threshold may be about a thousand particles. A cough releases 3000 droplets and a sneeze releases about 30,000 droplets. These droplets can contain 200 million viral particles, which explains why symptomatic people can spread Covid-19 indoors so easily.

In contrast a single breath releases about 50 to 100 droplets, which fall to the ground quite quickly. Although we don’t know the exact data it’s reasonable to assume that a person breathing may release 30 viral particles per minute. Speaking may change that to 300 per minute. So, this tells you that it would take perhaps 40 minutes of someone breathing near you, or about five minutes of someone speaking with you face-to-face in order to risk infection, assuming it takes 1000 viral particles to contract coronavirus.

This is important because it tells you that if you walk by someone outside or even inside in a grocery store, your risk is low. But let’s say you see a friend of yours in the grocery store, and you spend 15 minutes talking with them. That’s pretty high risk especially if you are face-to-face and not wearing a mask.

Where have most infections occurred?

  • Prisons
  • Long-term care facilities
  • Meatpacking plants
  • Business networking and conferences such as the Biogen conference in Boston in late February
  • With more relevance to most of us, weddings, funerals, birthday parties, family get-togethers,  which make up about 10% of the early super spreading events

Most of us aren’t in prison, we don’t live in a nursing home, we don’t work in a meatpacking plant. But many people have lately been tempted to go to parties which are clearly a high risk situation.

Finally, don’t forget to wash your hands or use alcohol gel. Don’t touch your face which includes your eyes, ears, nose, or mouth. When you get home wash thoroughly, and you may want to even jump in the shower and wash your hair, as some studies in medical settings have found that hair is particularly good at holding viral particles.

Here’s a good way to think about risk. It comes from advice about sexual health. If you have sex with someone, you are being exposed not just to them but to all their prior sexual partners. In a similar way, let’s say you get together with her friend who is not part of your household. You’re not only being exposed to them, but to every person they have had contact with in the last 14 days or so. The clerk in the store who didn’t wear a mask and stepped close to them, the UPS guy who knocked on the door and asked a question from 2 feet away, all the friends that they have had contact with, the people they live with, and all the people that those people have had contact with. As you can see one of the reasons coronavirus spreads so much is that the larger our social networks are the more risk there is.

Finally, be aware that many coronavirus infections are asymptomatic meaning that the people who have coronavirus are neither coughing or sneezing. Some studies suggest that as many as half of the cases are asymptomatic. This means you can’t depend on people knowing that they might be sick. The Center for Disease Control released data on June 26, 2020 that suggests that the real number of coronavirus infections is perhaps 10 times what has been reported. As of today, there are about 2.5 million cases reported in the United States, which means we may have had 25 million cases! That is 7.5% of the US population. This sounds like a lot, but it also means that 92.5% of the United States population is still in danger of contracting the coronavirus.

And that is why I’ve been practicing virtually since early March, and will continue to do so until there is either an effective treatment or a vaccine for the coronavirus. Be safe out there, and ask yourself about each activity if it is worth the risk not only to yourself, but also to all the people you might come into contact with including older parents and grandparents. We are all in this together, and even the young and healthy can transmit coronavirus if they get sick. Yes, we all miss going to restaurants, movie theaters, bars, parties, concerts, and sporting events. But it’s not permanent. I suspect that within the next six months will have much more effective treatments, and within 12 months we will have a vaccine which will let us get back to normal.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Why You Should Never Read Online Illness or Medication Forums, and Why You Should be Skeptical of Google Search Results as Well

The first thing many people seem to do when they get a diagnosis of a physical or mental illness is to go to the internet and search on that illness. Patients who are prescribed medications do the same. Often the search results lead to internet forums. These forums consist of user-generated content that usually is not moderated or edited by any professional. Anyone can post on these forums. This seems reasonable, right? But in this article, I’m going to tell you why, for the most part, you should avoid reading these forums. And I will also tell you why you should be skeptical of Google search results regarding any illness.

When people read on forums about their illness or medication, they get scared. Many of the forum posts will say that your illness leads to awful and dire outcomes and that the medications prescribed to you will make you depressed, addicted, or crazy.

For instance, I often treat tinnitus patients. Samplings of the forums that cover tinnitus suggest that most of the people who post on these forums are completely miserable and suffering terribly from their tinnitus.

So what’s the problem here? Isn’t this useful information? Can’t patients learn something interesting and helpful from these forums?

Unfortunately, Internet illness forums often present a distorted, grim, and negative impression of most illnesses and most medications. Why is this? The main reason is because of selection and sampling bias. The groups of people who post on illness forums are not a representative sample of people with a particular illness. Let’s use tinnitus as an example. If you read the tinnitus forums you would assume that everybody with tinnitus is anxious and depressed about it.

But actually, we know from research studies that roughly 20% to 40% of the population experience tinnitus symptoms from time to time. We also know that roughly 2% of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer psychologically. So the data from research suggests that a small subset (2%) of people who have tinnitus symptoms suffer anxiety and depression as a result of their tinnitus. Most people (98%) with tinnitus symptoms do not suffer significantly or they have adapted over time and gotten over their suffering.

But the forums are full of posts from the people who suffer the most. People who don’t suffer don’t spend their time posting. And people who have overcome their suffering also don’t post. So reading the forums gives a tinnitus patient a distorted and scary view of the experience of tinnitus.

The other problem in reading internet information about illnesses is the way that Google Search ranks and orders search results. When you search on tinnitus, what you might not realize is that Google presents pages in order of popularity, not in order based on how accurate or scientific they are. Sites that are clicked on more frequently will rise up in the Google search results and sites that are clicked on less frequently will fall down. When you do a Google search people typically click on the most shocking and scary links. “Tinnitus caused by alien abduction” will get a lot of clicks even though it may represent a site run by a single person who claims to have been abducted by aliens. Thus the alien abduction tinnitus site will move up in the Google rankings.

Boring scientific sites fall down in the search rankings. That’s because they have scientific names that don’t encourage people to click on the links.

So how can patients get accurate information about their illness or about medication treatments?

One way is to search within scientific and medical sites. For instance, Medscape is an excellent website that offers medical articles about almost every illness. WebMD is another site more designed for lay people, which also offers good information. If you want to search scientific articles you can use the PubMed search engine which searches published research articles.

Let’s do a Google search on tinnitus. Overall, the 1st page of Google results is pretty representative of medical and scientific sites. But the 3rd listing titled “In the news”, is an article “Martin McGuinness tells of misery living with tinnitus,” from the Belfast Telegraph. Pretty grim, you think, misery!

But if you actually clicked through to the article you would get a very different impression because what Martin McGuinness actually says is that tinnitus “had a limited impact on day-to-day life and work and that family, friends and work colleagues were very supportive. It does not limit me in a professional or personal capacity.” This is a much more positive view than suggested by the title and the Google link.

This is a great example of why the Internet is dangerous. The headline is what’s called clickbait, a link that falsely represents the actual page, which is designed to attract people’s clicks.

Forums about medication are also problematic. Many psychiatric medications can have side effects. For most people, these side effects are minimal or tolerable and are overbalanced by the benefits of the medications. For a minority of patients, the side effects are not minimal and these are the patients who are over-represented in most Internet medication forums. Also, on an Internet forum you never really know all of the medications the person is taking, the accurate dosages, as well as their underlying illness.

There is one more problem with reading about illnesses on the Internet. It’s one that particularly disturbs me. Many websites, even websites that purport to be objective, actually are selling something. They may be selling a supplement or vitamin, or an e-book or some other kind of program to treat an illness. Obviously, to increase sales, these commercial websites will paint a distorted negative picture of any illness or condition. They may also disparage other more traditional and scientifically validated treatments or drugs. In general, you should be skeptical of any information that comes from a website that sells products or services.

To review:

  1. Take Google search results with many grains of salt. Remember that Google orders search results by popularity not by accuracy.
  2. Beware of Internet illness and medication forums. By and large, they are populated with an unrepresentative sample of illness sufferers, the ones who suffer the most and cope the least well. Reading them will depress you and make you anxious.
  3. If you want to get information about your illness or potential treatments, consider using established and reputable medical and psychological information sites. An exhaustive list of best medical sites can be found at the Consumer and Patient Health Information Site. Some of the good medical sites include MedscapeWebMD, and MayoClinic. Some of the best sites for mental health information include PsychCentral, NIMH, American Psychiatry Association, American Psychology Association.
  1. Finally, remember that a very large percentage of websites are actually selling something, and be skeptical of information from these sites.

In conclusion, suffering any illness or condition is unpleasant and sometimes scary. Don’t make it worse by consuming information on the Internet in a random way. Be skeptical and selective and remember that Google is not always your friend. Often a good physician or good psychologist can give you clear and balanced information.

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

Weight Training Avoided Because You Think It Takes Too Much Time? New Study Shows You Can Be Stronger In 13 Minutes

There is so much mythology around exercise and especially around weight training. I’ve recently resumed weight training after a back injury a few months ago spurred me to get stronger. Because I am a major nerd, I read about six books on weight training.

What I learned was that to get stronger you needed to do multiple sets of each exercise. Let me explain for those of you that are not savvy about weight training. Let’s say you decide to work out your bicep muscle. You pick up a dumbbell that weighs 10 pounds, and you curl it 12 times. Those are called repetitions. Then you rest for a minute or two, and you do 12 more repetitions. So far you’ve done two sets.

Conventional Wisdom on Weight Training

Most of the books I read suggested that it was necessary to do at least three sets, but often five sets in order to develop true strength. Many of the books differentiated between lifting heavy weights fewer times and lighter weights more times. When you lift heavy weights fewer times supposedly you develop more strength and less size, and when you lift lighter weights more times you develop strength but also bigger muscles.

It turns out that there is almost no science about any of this! Thanks to a group of researchers from Australia and from New York, we now have some good research. There is a good article about this research in the New York Times. 

The researchers took 34 fit young men who had some experience with weight training. They randomly assigned them to three groups; one group did one set of each exercise per training session, the second group did three sets of each exercise per session, and the third group performed five sets per exercise each training session. A set was 8 to 12 repetitions performed to failure, meaning the person could no longer lift the weight any further.

All groups did three weekly sessions, every other day, for eight weeks. The researchers then evaluated muscle strength by determining the maximum weight that each person could lift using a squat and a bench press exercise. They also measured the size of the participants’ muscles in the arms and the legs.

The one-set group took about 13 minutes to do each workout, the three-set group took about 40 minutes, and the five-set group took about 70 minutes to do one full workout.

Research Study Results:

So what happened? Surely the men who did five sets of each exercise got stronger than the ones who only did one set, right?

Not me, sadly…

Actually, there was no difference in the strength increase between the three groups. All three groups got stronger. The only differences were found in muscle size. The group that did three sets had slightly bigger muscles at the end of the study than the group that did one set. In the group that did five sets had even bigger muscles. But these were muscles that were bigger but not stronger.

This is great news for those of you who want to do weight training but who want to use the minimum effective dose of weight training. Since most of us would like to feel stronger and fitter, and not everyone cares about muscle size, this streamlined workout is equally effective. And one could get significantly stronger spending 45 minutes per week spread over three workouts. (I suspect that two workouts per week would also improve strength.)

If you are interested in taking up weight training, be sure to consult books on weight training, videos on YouTube, and perhaps pay a weight trainer to teach you how to do each exercise with good form. You don’t need a trainer on an ongoing basis, but it’s useful to learn from an expert so that your form doesn’t lead to injuries. Also a trainer can assess your current strength and figure out what weights you should be lifting at first.

I’m off to do my 13-minute weight training session…

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at CambridgeTherapy.com or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.