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Cold and flu season is upon us, and COVID-19 is still here, too. I called our writer Jacob Stern, who has posted recent updates on the science of masking Y hand washingand asked him to discuss some common misunderstandings about the spread of respiratory viruses and how to protect others when we get sick.
But first, here are three new stories from the atlantic.
Kelli Maria Korducki: Jacob, everyone seems to have a cold right now, including me! One would think that, with the masking and handwashing habits we developed during the pandemic, not all of us would get sick. And yet here we are. What’s going on?
Jacob stern: Well, it’s because we still wash our hands and don’t wear enough masks.
Handwashing remains very important to prevent the transmission of gastrointestinal viruses and many other pathogens. And as I wrote in my recent article, it’s also important to prevent respiratory viruses in a more marginal way, but not as important as things that have to do with the air, like masking or ensuring good ventilation. Your cold is probably not the result of not washing your hands; it is more likely the result of being infected through the air with whatever coronavirus it is. So it’s more likely to be a result of being in a crowded indoor space or spending a lot of time around someone who was infected.
Kelly: In your article on masking, mentioned the goal of changing “the physical world to stop viral transmission before it happens.” What is that world like and how far are we from achieving it?
Jacob: The basic idea is that vaccines and antivirals are great. On the other hand, they take a long time to develop and are basically reactive. For example, we can’t design our vaccine for a virus until we know something about what that virus will be. But there are all sorts of things we can do to change our physical world, whether it’s improving ventilation, investing in germicidal lighting, or wearing very high-quality masks, which can stop viral transmission. No matter what virus we find, those things are going to be effective.
In terms of how close we are to actually living in the kind of utopian, virus-free world some people hope to create: I’d say not very close.
Part of why the people I’m talking to in this article are so into masks is because masking is easier than some of the other steps we need to take to get to that perfect world. Improved ventilation, for example, is something that needs to be installed in buildings all over the place, and a lot of institutional support is needed there. As for germicidal lighting, more research still needs to be done on this, and there are probably regulations on what types of lighting are allowed in various places that should be changed. And then, similarly, it would need to be installed.
The skins are the closest thing we have to a possible solution where a group of committed and focused people can make progress on their own by designing better skins, making them more affordable, and then making plans to distribute them.
Kelly: What is the biggest misconception about cold and flu season?
Jacob: I’m hesitant to go right into the bigger one, as I’m sure I’m going to forget something that’s an even bigger mistake. But one that didn’t even show up in any of my articles is the idea that you get a cold from being physically cold or spending too much time outdoors, which, as we’ve known in recent years, isn’t what’s going on. Getting sick has to do with the dynamics of airborne transmission.
And then, similarly, there’s the idea that handwashing is kind of the number one public health strategy that we have at our disposal, or at least the number one individual public health strategy that we have at our disposal. But what the last three years have taught us, if anything, is that washing your hands can’t do much. Thinking in the air instead of streaming through surfaces is actually a much more effective strategy for the season we’re talking about.
Kelly: During the summer, you listed some tips on how to be “a good sick person” in the COVID era. Do you have any suggestions you would offer for the cold and flu season we are currently enjoying?
Jacob: The really big one, which hasn’t changed: If you’re sick, stay home. It doesn’t matter if it’s COVID or something else. What we should have internalized is that going to work sick is not a great sacrifice or an act of bravery. It’s a bit selfish because you’ll put all your co-workers at risk of getting sick too. Especially in this age where so many people can work from home.
With that said, the big caveat here is that there are vast numbers of people across the country who don’t have the ability to work from home, or even have paid sick leave. So this top tip, unfortunately, is not something that many people can take. And the solution to that obviously has to be a political solution.
- The latest data from the US government to show GDP rose 0.6 percent after two quarters of decline, but other indicators suggest an economic slowdown.
- Elon Musk published an open letter in anticipation of its purchase of Twitter this week, stating that it is acquiring the platform to create “a common digital public square, where a wide range of beliefs can be debated in a healthy way”.
- The Pentagon border a new national security strategy that highlights the dangers posed by China and Russia.
Rachel Cusk won’t sit still
By Thomas Chatterton-Williams
To access Rachel Cusk’s Paris apartment, on the top floor of a cramped residential building in the Marais, you must first climb five flights of spiral stairs. Once inside her house, you’re faced with yet another staircase, at the top of which runs an elegant corridor of rooms and an Instagram-worthy reading nook. From that level, there is one last set of minimal steps leading up to a loft-like living room, giving way to a beautiful terrace with unobstructed views that more than justify the effort required to get there.
It’s not every day that a writer you think is one of the greatest living novelists expatriates minutes from your door… Cusk is a literature of immaculately crafted observations, as aesthetically stimulating as it is philosophically devastating. And I have a suspicion that this move to Paris, a city filled with the kind of bourgeois social situations she captures with such punitive honesty, will produce something spectacular.
More of the atlantic
Read. the groovesa new novel by Namwali Serpell that explores grief as it is truly experienced.
Clock. the settings (on Showtime), an amazing and low-key debut from 2016 about the weird ways peer pressure can manifest.
I asked Jacob if he wanted to recommend anything. No related to avoiding respiratory viruses. “I’d never seen Seinfeld until about two weeks ago, when I started watching it on Netflix,” he told me. “There are definitely episodes that have aged poorly, but for the most part I think it’s incredibly funny. I definitely recommend it.”
Isabel Fattal contributed to this newsletter.