The Hyper IgM Foundation Blog 

How to avoid catching the Coronavirus: lessons from the 5 years I spent living in a bubble

Mar 1, 2020

I’ve spent years avoiding all viruses – from the mildest common cold to the flu and other strains of Coronavirus. Today, I will share my secrets with you.

Most people do not concern themselves too much with the annual and normal spread of cold & flu viruses we are accustomed to in our modern society. Unless it is a really bad year for the flu, the average person’s anxiety regarding the spread of disease between people is negligible, but for many years the common cold raised about as much fear in my family as the Coronavirus or Ebola does for most.

In 2013, my 8-month-old son was diagnosed with a rare, one-in-a-million immunodeficiency, called Hyper IgM Syndrome. Hyper IgM patients have a defective immune system and cannot produce antibodies in response to infection. My son’s type, CD40 Ligand Deficiency, meant that his T cells did not function properly, leaving him in great danger if infected with any virus, even a cold. My wife and I had to turn our whole lives upside down to keep our son safe.

Our first thought was “how are we possibly going to keep him safe living in Manhattan, an island that on an average day has over 8 million people coming and going from every country in the world?” The steps we took to keep our son safe and keep ourselves from getting sick and transmitting it to him can be used by anyone with a healthy immune system today to help protect from the Coronavirus. When I surveyed our global network of Hyper IgM patients about their level of anxiety with the spread of COVID-19, I found the results surprising. Most parents, while somewhat worried, had been living in fear of all viruses for so long that their daily lives already had all the restrictions in place to deal with this new threat.

Here are a few easy things you can do to protect yourselves and your loved ones:

Hand washing:

I cannot emphasize this enough. The majority of illnesses are spread because of poor hand washing hygiene. For most, this daily lack of care has no effect, as one’s immune system protects you on a daily basis. In fact, many rightly believe it is good for kids and adults to be exposed to germs and viruses to train and strengthen their immune system. Most people do not wash their hands properly or frequently enough. For us, it was the number one way to keep our son safe. Personally, I have never observed another person wash their hands correctly after using a public restroom, so it is worth a quick refresher from the World Health Organization in this short tutorial embedded here.

Face touching:

Viruses and bacteria mostly do not make it past your body’s first line of defense — the skin. The skin that covers most of your body also does a great job of keeping it safe. The main ways these pathogens make it in is actually through the gaps in the skin – eyes, ears, nose, and mouth. Most people who have a cold or the flu probably did not catch it from another person randomly coughing or sneezing directly into their faces (although to be fair, it does happen in NYC subways!). They more likely got sick from touching a surface with cold and flu viruses and then touching their face. The average person touches their face over a hundred times a day without even noticing. My wife and I had to train ourselves to completely stop touching our faces. It is one of the hardest things I have ever done, and impossible to achieve in totality. But with a lot of work and self-control, we managed to significantly minimize how many times we touched our face unnecessarily. (Also, added benefit: no pimples!)

Don’t touch things you don’t have to touch: 

It is amazing how many of us just touch things for the sake of it. Between countertops, subway poles, doorknobs, keyboards, phones, ATM machines, taxi doors and more, we are constantly touching surfaces that others (including people who have active viruses) have touched recently. Germs can live on surfaces for days. Short of staying in one’s home, there is no way of avoiding these surfaces altogether. But being conscious and aware of these surfaces, minimizing touching of those surfaces, and hand washing or using hand sanitizer immediately afterward will help reduce the risk of picking up someone else’s germs. Also, don’t get me started on handshakes and high-fives. Just wave hello for goodness sake.

At home:

People do not realize how germy common surfaces in the house can get. Make sure to Clorox or disinfect surfaces like your phone, keyboard, faucets, doorknobs, remotes, light switches, fridge and microwave doors, and countertops on a daily basis. We relied on Clorox and Lysol wipes for our daily sanitizing routine.

Hand towels and kitchen sponges are other sources of bacteria in the home. Consider switching these out often, and moving towards disposable hand towels to minimize the risk of infection.

If you still wear shoes in your home, this might be a good time to try a no-shoe policy. Shoes track in all sorts of germs into the house, so unless you are cleaning your floors multiple times a day, keep those germs at bay by leaving your shoes by the door.

With all these precautions, we managed to keep our very susceptible and immune-deficient son very safe. In fact, he is one of the few kids I have seen who had two bone marrow transplants and did not “reactivate” any of the common viruses that most kids would have had by the time they are 5, like CMV, EBV or Adenovirus. Unlike most kids his age, he never caught them in the first place.

If all else fails, Purell:

For years, we walked around with Purell in our pockets and Wet Ones Sanitizing wipes in our bag. For all those times we had to touch surfaces and could not wash our hands after we used Purell or the wipes which are very effective and are a good alternative for handwashing (though not as good).

With these (relatively) small changes to your daily routine and hygiene protocols, you can significantly reduce the risk of getting sick during the cold and flu season, and hopefully, also avoid catching the COVID-19 as it spreads globally.

Akiva Zablocki, MPH, is the President of the Hyper IgM Foundation and a graduate of Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health.