COVID-19 Q&A: Dr. Karen Golemboski, immunology expert

March 12, 2020

Karen Golemboski
Like you, we still have questions about the coronavirus and the recommended responses to it. If young people aren’t particularly susceptible to the virus, how does sending students home help to address the pandemic? What steps can each of us take to help? How the heck do you stop touching your face?
Luckily for us, we have an expert on our staff. Dr. Karen Golemboski has an undergraduate degree in Medical Technology and a Ph.D. in Immunology. She has been the director of Bellarmine’s Medical Laboratory Science program since 2004 and a member of the university’s Pandemic Planning Committee since 2006.  
Dr. Golemboski answered some of our questions—from a safe distance by email, of course. And she gave us some hope amid the panic. “We have a chance to change the outcome of this pandemic in our community by simply changing our behaviors, if we are willing to recognize how interrelated our lives are and to consider the health of others.” 
Q: COVID-19 seems to affect a smaller subset of the population—older people with underlying health conditions—than other strains of the flu. So why send students off campus? Are we overreacting?
A: It’s true that young adults are not at high risk for severe disease, but they can spread the virus to others in their families, homes, and the community who are at high risk: parents, grandparents, immunosuppressed patients on chemotherapy, etc.
Even if students only infect other students, each of those students can then infect other people—and the more people who are infected, the more high-risk individuals will be exposed. We aren’t overreacting at all; in fact, we are using methods that have been proven to save lives in past disease outbreaks. 
Q: We’re all familiar with the term “social distancing” now. What does that accomplish? 
A: Reducing group interactions and keeping people apart will help to slow the spread of COVID-19, which means fewer sick people who need health care at any given time. If hospitals are overwhelmed, patients may not have access to equipment and care they need.
Slowing down the rate of spread, by creating more distance between people who could spread the virus, makes it more likely that the healthcare system can provide appropriate care and save more lives.
Q: At what point does a group of people become large enough to be a COVID-19 issue? That number seems to keep changing.
A: That is confusing, isn’t it? The CDC recommends maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet between people, so that’s a good place to begin. It’s hard to determine a specific number because there are so many variables. Even a small group could result in infection if the space is small, or if a group member has respiratory symptoms.
I think the best policy is to consider any gathering to be a risk. Consider how essential the meeting is, which space is available, and the handwashing and cleaning availability. Is there another way to meet? Whatever the reason for getting together, is it worth risking illness or death for anyone? 
Q: Besides washing your hands, what are YOU doing to keep yourself safe, and what have you told your students to do/not to do? 
A. I’m doing more of the things I usually do (some of us think about germs a lot!)—frequent hand washing with soap when available, hand sanitizer when it’s not; using disinfecting wipes where appropriate (airplanes!); and paying attention to where I put my purse, tote bag, and anything else that has touched surfaces outside my home. I am also now trying to avoid non-essential groups of people—I still need to buy groceries, of course, but I’m making fewer and shorter trips.
I always tell my students to pay attention to where their clothes have been. If you’ve ridden on public transit or have been in a group setting, change your clothes when you get home. If you wear scrubs at work, especially in a healthcare setting, make sure your pant legs don’t touch the floor, so you’re not dragging things home with you. That probably should apply to all pants, come to think of it.
Q: I’m washing my hands a lot. But when I’m in a public restroom that has the option, which is better: paper towels or air dryers? 
A: A tough choice! Either is good if you can turn on the dryer or access the paper towel without touching a button (motion-activated, or something you can hit with your elbow). In some cases, if you need to pull open the door, I prefer a paper towel because I can use it to grab the door handle and then throw it away. I’m always happy to see a trash can within reach of the door, but I’m willing to throw it from a distance if I have to! (Is that a bad thing to admit?)
Q: I know I need to stop touching my face, but I CAN’T STOP! Do you have any tips for me? 
A: That's a tough one! Work especially hard at avoiding your eyes, nose, and mouth; those are the easy entry points for bacteria and viruses. Try wearing your favorite ring or bracelet and notice it as it’s coming toward your face—then stop your hand! 
Q: I’ve heard that cell phones are gross petri dishes of germs. You obviously can’t submerge them in soap and water, though, and all of the disinfecting wipes have been snapped up. What now? 
A: There’s no question you’ve got all sorts of microorganisms on your phone! Check to see what your phone manufacturer recommends; in most cases, you can slightly wet a microfiber cloth with mild soap and water and use it to wipe your phone. Even a wipe with a clean dry tissue is better than nothing. However, you are the one who handles your phone most often; things that have been touched by other people are much more risky in terms of coronavirus—think doorknobs, hand rails, elevator buttons, gas pumps, you name it. You can’t clean all of those, so be sure to wash or sanitize your hands after you’ve touched them. (And of course, don’t use a doorknob and then touch your face!)

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