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  • How To Safely Hug Loved Ones During A Pandemic, According To Infectious Disease Doctors

    Human touch makes us feel safer and reminds us that we're not alone.
    by Rachel Perez .
How To Safely Hug Loved Ones During A Pandemic, According To Infectious Disease Doctors
PHOTO BY iStock
  • At the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, frontliner parents and their children being separated tugged our heartstrings. But the Filipino resourcefulness kicked in, and we saw kids wrapped in plastic covers just to give their parents a hug. That hug helped frontliner parents to soldier on.

    Now months after, and with quarantine protocols relaxed, is it safe to drop by a loved one’s house for a quick chat, a meal, or a hug? Can you remove your mask when you visit the grandparents' home?

    Human connection is vital for human survival, whether we like a lot of people or just a few. Due to the pandemic, most of our relationships have been reduced to text messages and video calls, but they’re not enough.

    Hugs have been proven to help reduce worries and stress and support a child's development. Just your partner holding your hand is quite powerful and has been shown to lower pain during childbirth. Physical interactions help affirm that we are safe, and we are not alone.

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    But how do we do it today? It’s too costly to get an RT-PCR COVID-19 test done, and it’s only valid for two weeks. It’s too tedious to take a bath after arriving at the house of a family member or friend before hugging.

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    You’ll be glad to know that the risk of virus exposure during a brief hug is low, according to Dr. Linsey Marr, Ph.D., an aerosol scientist and one of the world’s leading experts on airborne disease transmission.

    Experts are still finding out more about COVID-19. It is not airborne but mostly transmitted through respiratory droplets, which can be carried by air for a time. This is why going to hospitals poses higher risks of infection.

    “We don’t know how many infectious viruses it takes to make you sick — probably more than one,” Dr. Marr tells The New York Times. “If you don’t talk or cough while hugging, the risk should be very low.” Still, the longer the hug, the higher the risk.

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    The risk of viral exposure may be highest at the start of the hug when two people approach each other and could breathe on each other, and at the end, when they pull apart. That’s according to Dr. Yugou Li, Ph.D., an engineering professor and senior author of a Hong Kong study that shows how respiratory viruses travel during close contact based on mathematical models.

    The probability of getting infected through a hug is low because the dosage of the virus that will make one person sick is still unknown. Experts estimate it at an average of 200 to 1,000 copies of the virus. A cough may carry about 5,000 to 10,000 viruses, but only two percent would land on a person nearby, and not all of it would be infectious.

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    How to safely hug loved ones during a pandemic

    But that's not an excuse to be complacent. The safest thing to do is to avoid hugs, especially if the other person has a cough or other respiratory symptoms. Reserve these for special persons in your life. If you need to hug another person, take the necessary precautions:

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    • Wear a mask.
    • Avoid touching your face or mask on the other person’s clothes.
    • Don’t hug face to face or cheek to cheek. Point your faces in opposite directions.
    • Hug outdoors where there is proper ventilation.
    • Don’t talk or cough while hugging.
    • Try not to cry to avoid exposing more body fluids, posing a higher risk of infection.
    • Hold your breath, suggests virologist Dr. Julian Tang, Ph.D., who studies how respiratory viruses travel through the air. It prevents inhaling any virus as you lean forward and back away from a hug.
    • Make it short and sweet. The risk of transmission increases with prolonged contact.
    • When you’re done, back away quickly to prevent yourself from breathing into each other’s faces.
    • Wash your hands and consider changing clothes after.

    Remember, the virus is still here. It has infected more than nine million and claimed the lives of nearly 500,000 people around the world. Until there's an effective treatment, or better yet a vaccine, against COVID-19, we are responsible not just for ourselves but also for our kids.

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