Here's how we stop people from touching their faces: the veil | Opinion

As a physician, medical professor, and founder of an international medical relief group, I've spent my career working to promote public health and eradicate disease.

In my line of work, the COVID-19 pandemic presents new challenges—and reignites existing ones. Right now, information is traveling at light speed. So are confusion, misinformation, and conspiracy theories. Every day, we learn more and more. Every day, there is additional guidance that we need to process to keep ourselves and those around us as protected as possible. It seems so far outside our control.

But – one thing that we can all control is our interactions with our own bodies. To that, we have just launched a new campaign, called "Don't Touch Your Face," to drill into people that our habits have to change as we respond to the pandemic.

Face-touching is nearly impossible to stop cold turkey, so to speak. According to the existing body of research, people touch their face up-to-and-more-than 20 times an hour, and for a variety of reasons: to manage our appearance, to communicate when talking, and to even self-soothe (touching your face actually changes your brainwaves!).

As we think about COVID-19, let's also acknowledge the number of things you touch every day that have already been touched by one or two other people (like the fridge door handle in your kitchen) and the things you touch even during a period of social distancing that hundreds of other people may have handled daily (the crosswalk signal button on your evening walk or the credit card machine at the grocery store). These all pose a potential risk for infection when our hands go from those objects to our face.

In times of significant need and when resources are short, the best solutions are often innovative, affordable, available, and easy-to-implement. So in that spirit, we propose a novel solution to the "Don't Touch Your Face" commandment: we want to bring back the veil. Or alternatively, get yourself a mosquito net.

Floating Doctors works directly in communities impacted by tropical disease. We often have mosquito netting in our equipment and supply boxes. You might not, but you can get one, or make your own version of a veil or face cover pretty simply with household materials.

And before you say this is crazy, let me back up. If we start from the premise that none of us should touch our face during the pandemic, and we also acknowledge that breaking this habit is incredibly hard, our recommendation is that people put up a literal barrier of mindfulness to discourage the habit.

Earlier, we were talking about the hand-to-face connection. To that, I want to bring up a medical term you may see in the news a lot right now: "Fomite Transmission." It's vitally important to understand what this means and how it relates to protecting against COVID-19.

"Fomites" are objects that, when contaminated with germs (such as bacteria, viruses or fungi), can transfer the germs to a new host. It could be a scalpel, phone, pencil, door handle, buffet serving spoon, a touch screen, or light switch — anything a germ can live on long enough for sick people to contaminate it.

Fomite Transmission can happen through a variety of ways: coughing, sneezing, and breathing, or flushing a toilet and aerosolizing pathogens (even using hand dryers can disperse bacteria around a room). But one of the most common ways of Fomite Transmission is when people's dirty hands spread germs onto shared surfaces.

The next people to touch the Fomite on a shared surface can then become infected themselves, often by touching their face—especially mucous membranes like the eyes, mouth, and nose—with contaminated hands. The term may be new to most of us, but the concept is something we all know, and rarely think about, except when we see someone walk out of the bathroom without washing their hands, or sneeze at the buffet line.

There's a lot of debate over exactly how long or how well this new virus can live on various surfaces, and it's difficult to say yet exactly how much transmission is from Fomites and not direct person-person spread, but let's look just at what EVERYONE is in agreement about:

1. We know for sure that that COVID-19 can live outside the body on various surfaces for hours to days, and this is plenty long enough to infect the next person to touch the Fomite.

2. We know that sick people deposit COVID-19 on surfaces and create Fomites: researchers found "swabs taken from air exhaust outlets tested positive, suggesting that small virus-laden droplets may be displaced by airflows and deposited on equipment such as vents." They found virus on swabs from 13 of 15 room sites including fans, toilet bowls, sinks, and door handles, concluding that "significant environmental contamination by patients with SARS-CoV-2 through respiratory droplets and fecal shedding suggests the environment as a potential medium of transmission."

3. We know that a key path by which people get infected from Fomites is by touching the Fomite and then touching their face.

4. We know face-touching is nearly impossible to just stop.

So no matter what we learn in the months to come, we know for sure—right now—that Fomites and face-touching pose a risk, and that not touching our faces (which really costs nothing and doesn't immediately impact our economy or society) would be a really good new habit to be creating right now. Despite this, it's a huge challenge for most of us to achieve.

A DIY veil, or mosquito net purchased from an online retailer, won't protect you from inhaled droplets (only a properly fitted N95 mask will do that) but we believe it will work to keep you from touching your face.

Easy. Cheap. Simple. A solution you can implement right now—and more importantly, something you can do to protect yourself. It's a lot harder to not touch our faces than it is to put do something that stops the face-touching for us!

Hopefully this is something we can have fun with; as those of us with kids start running out of crafts to do, DIY veils and nets could be interactive and non-fear provoking.

Get ahold of one today and join us on the "Don't Touch Your Face" campaign. We even have a hashtag: #dtyf.

Check online, dig your mosquito head net out of your camping gear, or make your own veil. You should still take other precautions as well—especially strong social distancing measures, wearing gloves in public if you can access them, and washing your hands both before and after you take those gloves off—but this is an in-addition-to rather than instead-of layer of protection.

And it works on mosquitos, too.

Dr. Benjamin LaBrot is the Founder and CEO of Floating Doctors and a Clinical Assistant Professor of Medical Education at the Keck School of Medicine Dept. at USC.

The views expressed in this article are the author's own.​​​​​

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