COMMENT:

Q: I am a schoolteacher. What can I do to stay safe in the classroom when I return to work?

Covid-19 is widely predicted to infect the majority of the world's population over the next year and a half.

With one of the world's most effective Covid shutdown strategies, New Zealand has avoided the greatest early risk: a collapse of the health system. While it would be ideal to have zero new Covid cases until an effective vaccine is widely available, that's just not likely to happen.

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This needn't create undue fear: even in Italy, the actual rate of Covid deaths so far is 1 in every 2,500 people. In most other developed countries, the death rate is ten times lower. In New Zealand, it is 1 in every 250,000 people.

Teachers in general are not a high-risk group. Healthcare and rest home workers are, because Covid disproportionately affects the elderly and chronically ill. The young are less likely to get infected, less likely to get seriously ill, and less likely to spread the infection to others.

Fatal cases among children are extremely rare. When kids are affected, the illness is almost always mild. Luckily, unlike flu or many other infectious diseases, children with Covid are not super-spreaders.

Having said all this, what can a teacher do to decrease risk? I'll keep it simple.

Assess your risk: If you are elderly, seriously ill, or on immune suppressants, you may want to avoid any increased exposure to infection, whether it's flu, Covid or something else.

The safest place for someone who is 80 or has emphysema during this phase of the pandemic is at home, not at school or anywhere else with high levels of close (less than 2 metre) or prolonged exposure to the public.

Avoid contact with the highest-risk groups: the elderly, those in rest homes, and those in hospital - for your protection and theirs. Your fellow staff members are likely a greater Covid risk to you than the students, as viral load seems to increase with age.

Avoid being near anyone who has a fever or a cough. If you have a fever or a cough, stay home. This common courtesy applies to Covid or the flu: if you are sick, keep away from others until you're better.

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Avoid inoculating yourself: Don't touch your face. We do it an average of 10 times an hour, but try your best to keep your hands off. Touching our mouth, nose, or eyes is one of the very best ways to give ourselves Covid.

Dr Gary Payinda. Photo / Supplied
Dr Gary Payinda. Photo / Supplied

Avoid getting up close and personal. If you can reach out and touch someone who's not in your bubble, or smell their breath, or get hit by their spittle while talking, you're closer than you should be.

You don't have to go overboard on this one, however. Covid's not measles or chickenpox, it doesn't hang in the air for hours waiting to infect passersby. It travels on invisible drops of spit. You don't have to cross the street to avoid anyone. Just avoid getting in their 'moist breath' zone.

Give it a wipe: clean your doorknobs, keyboard and mouse. One part bleach in 20 parts water in a sprayer bottle is a cheap, quick, and effective disinfectant. Make up a new batch every week. There is no need for stronger or more expensive cleaners: Covid is a weak virus, and even simple soap and water is more than enough to kill it. Keep it simple and frequent: a quick twice-daily wipe down of a doorknob is worth more than countless weekly 'deep cleans'.

Ask your school to consider placing alcohol hand gel dispensers mounted on the wall beside every doorway if possible. Ask kids to sanitise their hands upon entering and exiting your classroom. More importantly, model this behaviour yourself. Make hand hygiene a habit.

Speaking of hands, they're two of our biggest health risks. More than being scared of runners passing by, touching groceries, or standing in queues at the supermarket, we should be afraid of our own hands.

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Through them we give ourselves colds and flus, viral and bacterial diarrhoeal infections, school sores and abscesses, strep throat and rheumatic heart disease, pneumonia, and Covid. If there is one thing that people underestimate, it's the health risk posed by their own contaminated paws.

Gary Payinda is an emergency doctor in Northland.
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Covid19.govt.nz: The Government's official Covid-19 advisory website