Hill: Worried about coronavirus? Remember what mama said.

Sheridan Hill
Special to Black Mountain News

So I asked my nurse friend BC what he is doing in his personal life to reduce his chances of getting the coronavirus.

He worked as an emergency room RN for more than a dozen years, in pediatric intensive care for a decade, and in the long term intensive care unit for more than a decade, so he has seen it all. From what humans do that gets them in an ambulance to what they do that lands them in a unit for people who aren’t yet dying but aren’t getting better: He has seen it all.

Before he would tell me about his personal precautions, first he had to do what he always does, which is start talking science. Launch into a lecture about how the media is incorrectly naming and talking about the virus.

An illustration image of the novel coronavirus, COVID-19.

“It’s not THE coronavirus because there have been other coronaviruses,” he says, with a sternness in his voice. “It’s COVID-19, because it was discovered in 2019.

“Under a microscope, it resembles a lunar eclipse, when the sun’s corona is visible,” he says. I’m telling you, this is the level at which BC thinks about medicine. If you ask him any question at all about a little ailment you have, he’s going to start with the molecular level. 

Then he segues to the general history of viruses, the broad view.

SARS was one of the coronaviruses. Humans get, die from, and survive viruses all the time. Nothing new here from the standpoint of nursing, he says.

Common viruses that humans get include chicken pox, which can evolve into herpes and eventually into shingles. And so on. And there have been other viruses that spread from animals to humans, as COVID-19 is suspected of doing. “Google RDS,” he says, “respiratory distress syndrome.” In case I want to get more into the details of what this virus does.

But after I’ve listened patiently to microscopic details of COVID-19 and the general history of viruses, he starts talking turkey.

“Don’t mine for nose candy in the grocery store.” My apologies, but nurses can be very blunt. They’ve dealt with a lot of graphic grossness in the human body, and they use language like that. His point is that when you put your fingers to your nose, and to your eyes, you are swabbing whatever is on your fingers into your body. Into the area that is most vulnerable to this virus: the respiratory system.

As I write this, Purell has temporarily sold out on, but BC points out that hand washing — good handwashing — is the first defense. Maybe like your granma taught you, so that your hands are in warm, soapy water and you wash all areas of your fingers.

For the times when you can’t wash your hands, use hand sanitizers, and it doesn’t have to be Purell. They all fall into the category of “alcohol hand rinse” and are 7% alcohol in a viscous solution.

“I don’t recommend it, but yes you can pour alcohol over your hands,” he says, when I ask him what folks can do if they don’t have or can’t get hand sanitizer. “Alcohol causes a breakdown of the virus cell wall; it makes the cell wall burst. A virus has a protein shell, and 7% alcohol is what it takes to kill most of them.” 

For those who can stand a bit more science, here goes. Most of us find it confusing to grasp the difference between a virus and a bacteria; this is a good time to bone up. 

There is no need to buy antibiotic soap because this is not a bacteria.

“A bacteria is an independent, one-cell plant,” BC says. “There are many different kinds of bacteria, countless types, all over your body, and many of them are beneficial.” 

“A virus can’t replicate itself. It is a bundle of RNA, genetic material, wrapped in a protein shell, and one end has a receptor that allows it to burrow into a host cell — an animal, a person, a plant--and use the inside of that cell to replicate its RNA. Essentially, it works like a parasite; it has to use a host.”

(This is exactly why I never watch horror movies: Reality itself has enough thrill for me.)

“Then it replicates and the fight begins,” BC says. “Your immune system kicks in and one of them wins. This particular virus likes to be a host in the respiratory system.” 

I remember being told as a cub reporter back in the 1990s that I was a person for whom no amount of detail is too much. While I don’t love how weird it feels to know some of the science behind a virus, I believe and have always believed that more information is better. Knowing what this really is, and that there have been lots of them before, makes me feel better.

Speaking of the 1990s, when the year 1999 came, everybody was certain that every computer in the world, as well as the entire electrical grid, was going to shut down and the World As We Know It would come to an end.

Millions of dollars were spent on backup systems that, frankly, people should have had in place anyway. I can’t forget that moment of 11:59 PM on Dec. 31, 1999. The year 2000 was coming!! OMG! Everyone lucky enough to have a personal computer was at it, staring at the screen, waiting to see if the world was going to end. Praying. Praying to gods they’d never addressed before.

The clock struck midnight.

Nothing happened.

We all got up the next morning and used our computers just like we always had done.

So, regarding COVID-19, just do what your mamma taught you and stop picking your nose and wash your hands.

Sheridan Hill

Sheridan Hill is a native North Carolinian.