What I learned reporting on the coronavirus epidemic in China that could help you

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Eunice Yoon is CNBC’s Beijing Bureau Chief. She’s been covering the coronavirus epidemic in China since the beginning of the outbreak.

I’m not a doctor and I don’t play one on TV. 

That said, I’ve picked up a few things while covering the coronavirus epidemic in China that might help as people in the U.S. and Europe begin to cope with outbreaks now spreading in their home countries. 

First, try not to panic. The good news is that we all know a lot more about COVID-19 than when it first emerged. That is to your advantage. 

People wearing masks visit Qianmen Street amid the coronavirus outbreak on March 7, 2020 in Beijing, China.

Mao Jianjun | China News Service | Getty Images

 How to protect yourself?

  • Wash your hands: Wash for at least 20 seconds or use disinfectant wipes or sanitizer and then let your hands dry.
  • Keep your distance: Stay at least 1 meter, or  3 feet, from other people. Two meters if you can swing it.

You’ve probably heard the personal hygiene advice a lot by now, but this will likely be your best protection — it certainly has been mine. In China, the health authorities maintain the main way COVID-19 spreads is through respiratory droplets from coughing or sneezing.

They say the virus has been detected in feces and, in close quarters, aerosol transmission has been suspected. However, the most common way to get it is through droplets from infected people. So keeping your hands clean, not rubbing your eyes and standing arm’s-length away from the next person will go a long, long way. 

Empty shelves where hand sanitizer gels sold out in a London drug store on February 4, 2020.

Justin Tallis | AFP | Getty Images

Should I wear a mask?

In China, masks are highly recommended. In other words, they are essentially required and enforced by authorities.  The U.S. only recommends them for people who suspect they are sick. 

There are specific reasons why China essentially requires everyone to wear a mask. China is a big country with large parts still developing, and public health education is lacking.  So the government mandated people in the most affected areas to wear masks — and strongly advised the same for the rest of the population.  

People here are used to government orders in a way that many in Western societies are not. In addition, in the early days, little was known about the virus.

Disinfectant and protective gear to combat coronavirus.

Eunice Yoon | CNBC

If I were living outside of China, I would wear a mask depending on my lifestyle.  If you drive your own car and shop at stores that don’t get too crowded — and you’re not sick — you don’t really need a mask.  However, if you’re crammed on a train in Manhattan, you might want to consider wearing one.  

Chinese health officials found that coronavirus patients may be contagious without showing any symptoms for up to 14 days — in some rare cases even longer. World Health Organization officials told reporters last week that new data shows there aren’t as many asymptomatic cases as they originally thought. The fact is there’s still a lot they don’t know about the virus.

I have heard the argument that masks can be flawed as protection since they usually aren’t a perfect seal.  However, I don’t see the harm in wearing one in cases where crowds cannot be avoided. 

Is it safe for me to travel?

A friend asked me this the other day.  I think it depends on the risk level of where you are traveling and your personal risk profile. The mortality rate is still being assessed, though the latest out of the World Health Organization and China’s top health authority is 3% to 4%.  Because of the comprehensive testing in South Korea, the final fatality rate could turn out to be much lower. However, the pattern of who is most at risk has largely been the same. 

In China, the death rate has been highest for people in their 70s or 80s or people with compromised immune systems — between  8% to 14.8% — based on data from Feb. 11. For example, for those with heart disease, the fatality rate has been 10.5%.  For most others, however, the death rate has been under 0.5%.  

So if you’re traveling between places with few cases, the chances of you getting seriously sick from COVID-19 is generally low. I would take precautions. If on a plane, I might wear a mask.  

However, I would make a decision based on a specific risk assessment.  If you’ve just recovered from cancer, do you need to get on that plane today?  If you’re healthy and in your 20’s and going to a business meeting in a city with no confirmed cases, is it necessary to cancel?

A security guard dressed in protective gear in Beijing, China.

Eunice Yoon | CNBC

Is there anything you shouldn’t leave home without?

 When I go out reporting, this is what I carry now in my purse:

  • Hand sanitizer or disinfectant wipes. Sometimes both.
  • Alcohol spray, at least 75% proof.
  • An extra N95 or KF94 mask.
  • Gloves. Any kind, but usually rubber or latex. 

I carry the alcohol spray only because I find it more efficient when wiping down tables or other surfaces when I’m out and about working, Chinese health authorities recommend 75% proof.  I have an extra mask because I am in China and have been scolded by police for taking my mask off when taking a stroll in a park. 

As for how long you can keep a mask for, the rule of thumb I hear from the factories is medical masks should be tossed after one day. N95 masks, which filter out 95% of airborne particles, can be used for three days.  If any mask gets moisture in it, trash it.  It happens to be cold outside in Beijing so I’m always wearing gloves.  

The gloves protect me from touching surfaces directly.  I wash or wipe down my cloths or leather gloves every day.  I toss latex or rubber gloves after one or two uses, especially when I need to type out emails on my phone outdoors before I go live. Don’t forget a small hand cream or petroleum jelly.  All the hand washing and sanitizing is brutal on the skin.

What am I missing?

Stay as healthy as you can. There are different treatment protocols out there but so far, if you get COVID-19, your best defense will be your own immune system. I move my body as much as I can in my apartment — which usually involves cleaning it.  

Attempt to eat well. I order out from restaurants I trust but generally eat more at home. I grab sleep when I can— which has been challenging with all the news.

One other thing is to take care of your mental state and keep it in check. Try not to give in to hoarding. I understand it — because I felt the need to hoard in the early days, too, buying an extra laundry detergent and hand wash when I really didn’t have to.  

However, I also realized while reporting on the epidemic how connected we truly are. I wanted all the people around me to have their own hand sanitizer and all the medical workers to have enough masks for themselves and, of course, for the sick. It is in our interest to share with each other, so we all stay healthier, and overcome the coronavirus faster.

That said, expect moments of panic. I was so terrified one morning seeing my building security guard in a hazmat suit, I barely got to work. However, panic and overreaction has a cost.  

In fact, I see China dealing with that now — its severe restrictions have choked off businesses and paralyzed economic activity to an unknown degree. That is one situation that other countries can avoid — and so can you — armed with ever more knowledge about the coronavirus. 

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