Miryam Wahrman, PhD, biology professor and director of a microbiology research lab at William Paterson University, studies bacteria and how it is transferred to and from surfaces in our environment, such as disposable gloves, clothing and money.
She is the author of “The Hand Book: Surviving in a Germ-Filled World.” In the book, Wahrman makes the case for handwashing and other hygiene practices to reduce the risk of infectious disease and offers tips to stay healthier at home, work, school and, most importantly, in healthcare facilities.
Wahrman, who is also an expert in biotechnology and bioethics, has been providing insights and ideas related to COVID-19 to news reporters in recent weeks, with media coverage extending around the world. To date, she has been quoted in more than 200 stories, reaching hundreds of millions of readers, in publications in the United States, United Kingdom, India, Australia, Colombia, Germany, Denmark, Spain, and Indonesia, among others, and on websites published in English, Spanish, Dutch, Malay, and Bengali, to name a few.
Professor Wahrman also serves on the board of advisors, as an infectious disease specialist, for Bottom Line Health.
Following are some of the tips she’s shared in the media to stay healthy and safe during the pandemic.
***An expert in bioethics, who says she’s been discussing the issue of quarantine in her bioethics class at WP, Wahrman told the media that the ethical thing to do is for everyone who is not an essential worker to stay home right now, particularly people who think they’ve been exposed to the virus or show symptoms. Though it’s tempting to get out of the house, this is one instance where “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,” Wahrman said.
***Reinforcing a message she’s been stressing to the public and the media for years, Professor Wahrman told Parents magazine that washing your hands for at least 20 seconds with warm water and soap is the best way to protect yourself from pathogens, including COVID-19. This is especially true before touching your face or eating, as the mouth, nose, and eyes are entry points for microbes such as bacteria and viruses to get into our bodies. (Twenty seconds is the amount of time it takes to sing the “Happy Birthday” song twice. You can check the internet for suggestions of other songs or pop music lyrics, she says, if you don’t feel like having “Happy Birthday” stuck in your head all the time.)
***During a public radio interview, Wahrman noted that some studies reveal that about 30 percent of people don’t even wash their hands after using the restroom, and when people do wash their hands, they don’t typically get it right. The best way to wash hands is with warm water and soap. You need to scrub all over, on palms and the backs of your hands and your fingers and in between your fingers – again, for at least 20 seconds.
“…Here’s one thing you can do to lower your risk. It’s simple. It’s right there and doesn’t cost anything,” Wahrman said in an interview with The Guardian.
If you cannot wash your hands, use alcohol-based hand sanitizer (with at least 60% alcohol), which kills germs but doesn’t actually remove them from skin.
***How you dry your hands is also important. Germs thrive on moisture, so keeping your hands wet or even damp is not a good idea. The most hygienic way to dry them is with disposable paper towels, or your own dedicated cloth towel, she told Business Insider.
"Research studies show that drying with paper towels or cloth towels removes even more germs than washing alone, as the friction of drying reduces the germ count even further," Wahrman said. Cloth towels should only be used at home, where each person has his or her own towel and a dedicated spot to hang it, and it should be placed in the washing machine every few days if used often.
She does not recommend warm air or jet air dryers, often found in public restrooms, because “they can spew germs back on your hands, and into the air where you can breathe them in.”
Also, when it comes to public restrooms, use a paper towel or tissue to open the door handle on your way out. Wahrman suggests carrying tissues with you for just such purposes – including when you have to touch a pen in a public place such as the doctor’s office.
***With stores on short to no supply of hand-sanitizer, the professor tells us you can make your own. For instance, you can combine two parts of 99% alcohol with one part aloe gel. The goal is to make a solution with at least 60 percent isopropyl or ethyl alcohol. Rub it onto your hands and let them air dry. Make sure not to dilute the mixture with too much aloe, though; if it falls below 60 percent alcohol, the effectiveness “drops very dramatically,” Wahrman said.
***You can similarly make your own disinfecting wipes. Take a paper towel or tissue, dab it in rubbing alcohol or in a solution that is at least 60 percent alcohol, and wipe down whatever surface you’d like to sanitize. Even before the coronavirus outbreak, Wahrman did this to her cell phone daily, she told Business Insider.
Wahrman told WERU radio that coronavirus can stay active on surfaces for several days after an infected person or contaminated item has touched them. In her own research on bacteria, she found that “certain bacteria can live for weeks on a surface and then transfer to another surface and still be viable and be able to infect.” She subsequently stresses the importance of being “germ aware” always, COVID-19 threat notwithstanding.
William Paterson University
300 Pompton Road
Wayne, New Jersey 07470