The future is unknown, as it always is. We do know that the SARS-CoV-2 virus is spreading around the globe, but we don’t know how many people will be infected. Some experts are predicting that something like half of the adult population will be infected, although not all at the same time. We also know that many cases are relatively mild (like a cold or the usual flu), and some infections may be asymptomatic. However, we also know that some other cases—perhaps 20% or so—are very serious, and some of those are life-threatening.
What can we do, as individuals and a lab group, to protect ourselves, our families, each other, our communities, and our research? Here are my current thoughts, with an emphasis on activities related to our laboratory and our academic setting.
1/ If you haven’t done so already, get your flu shot. It won’t protect against the coronavirus, and it doesn’t provide perfect protection against the influenza virus, but it will reduce the chance of getting the flu (and save health-care resources for others in need).
2/ Make sure you and your household are prepared for a period of self-isolation or quarantine lasting 2 weeks, or perhaps longer. This means stocking up on food staples and, importantly, any medicines that you and your household need. For medicines, I suggest having at least a full month’s supply, maybe longer, in case there are disruptions to availability. Talk to your doctor about extending prescriptions or any other special needs you might have.
3/ If you develop symptoms of a cold or flu—even mild symptoms—please stay at home and don’t come into the office or the lab. We don’t want you to spread the infection. Just email the group list to let us know what’s up, and work from home on your writing and reading if you feel up to it. You won’t impress me, or anyone, by trying to work while you’re sick.
4/ If a member of your household becomes ill, see and follow point 3 above.
5/ Let’s all start practicing more restrained physical interactions, and thus set good examples not only among ourselves but also for our colleagues and friends. That means skipping hugs and handshakes, for the time being. Instead, you might put your own hands together and bow your head slightly to greet or congratulate someone. Or maybe an elbow bump, if you really must make contact. Foot bumps are apparently another new thing, too.
6/ Be prepared to stop your lab work on short notice. In the meantime, I guess March might be a good time to get a week-long or two-week experiment done, before the epidemic grows too large (if it does). However, I suggest holding off, for the time being, on any plan to start a large and/or long experiment.
7/ Speaking of long experiments, you will recall that we have a certain long-term experiment in our lab. The LTEE will soon hit 73,500 generations, at which time the samples will be frozen as usual. After that date, I’d like population samples to be frozen more often, say, every 2 or 3 weeks. Just freeze away a copy of each population (no need to plate cells)—basically, so we have samples to restart in the event that people get sick, or if the university should at some point curtail certain activities for a while.
8/ Be prepared to cancel your attendance at scientific conferences and other academic or social events as new information arises. Even if an event organizer decides to push ahead, you don’t have to go if you feel it is risky for you personally. As an aside, I recommend delaying purchases of airfares until an event is closer in time, given the current uncertainty. (Refundable tickets on most airlines are very expensive, and other tickets have restrictions.) Hotel reservations can usually be cancelled on shorter notice (a day or week, check to be sure), but not if they were booked through a discounter.
9/ And maybe the hardest advice of all is to practice good personal hygiene. Cover your mouth with your forearm or the inside of your elbow when you cough or sneeze unexpectedly. (If you know you’re sick, then you should have disposable tissues handy. Use those to cover your nose and mouth completely, and dispose of a tissue after one use.) If you find yourself coughing or sneezing repeatedly, see point 3 above. Wash your hands thoroughly [Click that link, with the sound on, and stay for the end!] after you’ve touched shared surfaces, especially before eating. And most difficult of all, avoid touching your own face. This coronavirus can survive for hours as tiny droplets on surfaces, which we may inadvertently touch (“fomite transmission”). Then, when we touch our mouth, nose, or eyes, we can infect ourselves.
10/ ADDED: Follow the news, and get your news from trustworthy, reliable sources. If it becomes clear that infections are spreading locally, or even if you are just concerned about that possibility, then avoid crowded public venues. (But this does not mean that you should follow the news obsessively, as that can be exhausting. h/t Carl Bergstrom.)
11/ ADDED: If you do isolate yourself, whether because of illness or concern, make sure to maintain frequent social contact with your family, friends, and the lab via phone, email, or whatever works best for you. Don’t let physical isolation and loneliness make you feel miserable. We are all stronger together, even if we might have to be physically apart.
12/ ADDED: Please read these Words of Wisdom, regarding preparedness for infectious disease outbreaks, from Michael Leavitt, a former Secretary of Health and Human Services.
13/ ADDED: This one is for those of you in science or other relevant scholarly fields. Do you have data in your lab notebooks and/or on computers accessible only in the lab? Are the datasets ones that you might need for your analyses and writing if, say, you end up confined at home for a few weeks? If so, I recommend that you copy it (but only if it’s allowed in the case of certain types of sensitive data!) by scanning it and/or copying it to your personal computer. That way, you can use it while working from home if you decide, or are required, to do so.
Take care everyone. Please let me know of any errors, omissions, and practical suggestions.