Hospitals are scary places at the best of times. But knowing that they’re crawling with multi-drug-resistant bacteria can send your anxiety into overdrive. You already don’t want to go. So knowing that you could get doubly sick makes it so much worse!
But what are the risks, really? Is it as dangerous as people like to point out? Or is the media blowing up the issue out of all proportions?
Why People Are So Concerned
Before the coronavirus pandemic hit, people were already concerned about the spread of “superbugs” in the hospital setting. These bacteria have evolved to resist destruction by antibiotics, making them impervious to one of modern medicine’s greatest tools. Now that COVID-19 is here, the threat seems much more real than it ever did in the past. The virus is on everyone’s minds all the time and fast becoming a part of the culture. We’re all wearing masks in shops – that’s odd in itself.
When it comes to hospital transmission, what matters most is the infectiousness of the disease. Epidemiologists call this the R0 – and it is just a number that describes how many new people who already have the virus infects on average. For COVID-19, it’s around six (without any social distancing or reduction measures). For the flu, it’s about 2, and for malaria, it’s incredibly high – about 15. Some diseases, therefore, spread around the population much more rapidly than others. The most deadly are those that float around in the air and remain viable at the same time. These can pass from building to building, going through vents and even shut windows to infect the occupants inside.
COVID-19 seems to be a cross between an airborne virus and a regular cold-like virus transmitted via heavy droplets in the air when somebody sneezes or coughs. There’s evidence that some COVID particles can survive in the air long enough to travel up the nose of another person, even if they don’t survive very long in that state. And there’s plenty of evidence to suggest that they transmit via surfaces.
Therefore, the question is whether you are likely to get a hospital-acquired infection if you visit the clinic for whatever reason.
First, it is important to mention that nosocomial infections have been a topic of medical malpractice for many years. The issue didn’t erupt simply because of the advent of the coronavirus pandemic. It has been around for a long time – and will likely remain that way, barring a massive medical breakthrough.
Second, the real question isn’t whether contracting one of these infections is possible, but whether there’s a high chance that it’ll happen. Life is all about balancing risks and rewards. You could avoid going to the hospital because you’re worried about picking up a disease, but that might not be the best strategy based on your appraisal of the risks. So, for instance, not going for a cancer surgery could protect you against infectious disease. But the tumor could continue to develop and eventually threaten your life.
So what’s the best strategy here? How do you avoid getting sick if you go to the hospital?
Stay In The Marked Quarantine Areas
Pretty much every hospital and doctors’ office in the land has special quarantine areas designed to keep people away from each other when queuing or passing in the corridor. Mostly, these are just areas on the floor marked by stickers. By themselves, they don’t do much. But instituting one-way systems and two-meter gaps between people can significantly slow the spread of infection.
Researchers think that your risk of getting COVID-19 is a function of the time you spend with an infected person and your distance from them. Therefore, passing somebody in a corridor who has the disease is unlikely to result in an infection. Having a face-to-face conversion for half an hour with a patient, however, increases the chances considerably.
Wear A Mask
The debate on masks continues to gyrate back and forth as experts try to make up their minds about whether they are a good thing or not. However, the consensus now seems to be that we should all be wearing masks.
A common theme is that masks don’t protect you from becoming infected, but help shield others if you’re carrying the disease. But, as with all these issues, it is a matter of degree. Wearing a mask or even pulling your shirt over your mouth and nose offers some protection, even if it isn’t much. Some researchers believe that wearing a mask lowers your risk of infection by 20 to 40 percent. That’s not nothing – in fact, it is quite considerable.
If you’re anxious, you can up the ante by wearing high-performance masks. At the start of the pandemic, few, if any, existed. All the N95 covers had to go to medical practitioners to protect staff on the front line. Now, though, global production of masks has gone through the roof, and companies are experimenting with intelligent versions that offer additional protection.
N95 is just a standard that says that a mask filters out 95 percent of particles. However, manufacturers are creating masks that remove 99 percent of particles, and some are on the drawing board that could potentially eliminate all pathogens.
As with any of this equipment, you need to use it correctly for it to work. Most disposable masks, for instance, have deformable metal wires that let you mold them to the shape of your face. Others have replaceable filters.
People who use masks need to wash them regularly and ensure that they are decontaminated before they put them on again. Currently, this is the most significant risk of wearing a mask and something you need to consider whenever you choose to use one in public, including at the hospital.
Wash Your Hands
When the pandemic first hit, the only thing that public health authorities told us to do with confidence was to wash our hands. The reasons for this are obvious. Your hands are very likely to interact with contaminated surfaces in the environment and your face – the point of entry for most infectious diseases. Washing them kills the virus and stops the cycle of transmission.
Hospital surfaces are usually immaculate, but not always. All it takes is for one infected person to sneeze, and an entire surface could become carpeted in an infectious layer of sputum, lurking until somebody touches it.
Droplets containing the virus can land pretty much anywhere. The floor is the most common destination, but others include the buttons in lifts, door handles, chairs, tables, POS machines, and faucets in the bathroom.
Fortunately, the vast majority of establishments now provide soap or alcohol gel on tap to the public, allowing them to wash their hands and prevent further transmission. The biggest risk to you personally is touching a contaminated surface and then putting your hand on your face. If you can avoid doing that, you can probably escape getting most hospital-acquired infections altogether.
What Are The Actual Risks?
Before the crisis, the risk of getting a hospital-acquired infection as about 1 in 25. As far as medical risks go, that’s pretty high, but also something that most people happily accepted as a regular part of life. It is unlikely that COVID-19 will change that figure much for otherwise healthy people. For the sick, though, it could be a game-changer, and a genuine reason to avoid the clinic. Patients, therefore, may want to investigate taking at-home treatments instead.
MRSA is one of the most commonly discussed forms of antibiotic-resistant infection. It doesn’t usually affect the healthy, but it can harm patients who are already weak. Around 2 percent of people have it without knowing that they’ve got it or could pass it on to someone else.
Avoiding it can be difficult, but it is possible, even for inpatients, using the methods described above. You can, for instance, opt to wear a mask while talking to doctors. You can also limit your interactions with the people around you in the ward, just in case they carry the disease. Furthermore, you can check into a clinic that takes MRSA or other infections seriously and uses various protocols to mitigate them.
The bottom line is that most infections (including COVID) start when people touch a contaminated surface and then touch their faces. This vector allows pathogens to get past the body’s tough outer defense and into the weaker and more permeable respiratory tract.
If you’re washing your hands with hand sanitizer, please make sure that it has more than 70 percent alcohol. If it doesn’t, it won’t be powerful enough to denature viruses and stop them from carrying out their deadly work.
Sanitizer doesn’t kill everything, though, so using soapy water is probably an even better solution. Norovirus, for instance, is impervious to many alcohol-based hand-sanitizer products.
Finally, stay well away from people who appear sick. Even before COVID-19, doing this was a good idea. Now that you don’t know who could infect you, and who you could infect, it is even more vital.