I'm an Infectious Disease Doctor. Here's How I Decide What's Safe to Do and What's Not.

This doctor asks himself these six questions before making a decision that could affect his health.

As the country begins to reopen in phases and people start to venture outside again, we're all making decisions that could affect our health every day. Many of us are basing our choices on some combination of news reports and intuition. But how does an infectious disease doctor decide what's safe to do and what's not in the age of the coronavirus? We spoke with Thomas Russo, MD, chief of the division of infectious disease at the University at Buffalo, to learn what he takes into consideration as the pandemic rages on. Keep reading to find out the six questions he asks himself before doing anything. And to help you choose where you go wisely, check out 7 "Safe" Places Where You Could Catch Coronavirus.

Is it an outdoor or indoor activity?

Girl riding bike with a mask on

By now, you've likely read that you're much more likely to contract the coronavirus indoors than out. In fact, a study conducted by Japan's National Institute of Infectious Diseases, which has not yet been peer reviewed, determined that "the odds that a primary case transmitted COVID-19 in a closed environment was 18.7 times greater compared to an open-air environment."

So, for Russo, whether or not an activity is outside versus in a confined space where the air volume is finite is an important factor he takes under consideration in a scenario in which other people would be present. "When you're dealing with people [and] you're not sure whether they could be infected or not—new individuals, not people in your house—outdoors always trumps indoors," he says. If you're looking for safe spots to enjoy, check out 5 Overlooked Places You Can Actually Go During Coronavirus.

How many people will be there?

People wearing masks social distance hang out

The virus is largely known to spread directly from person to person, so Russo always considers how many people are likely to be in an environment and how closely they will be concentrated. "Fewer people is better than more people," he says. "Whenever you can increase distance and decrease interactions, those are positive scenarios." For things you should be avoiding right now, check out 7 Things You Absolutely Should Not Be Doing With Friends Right Now.

Are they people I know?

Outdoor restaurant people wearing masks

Russo says he'd consider a socially distanced gathering in your own backyard or at a friend's place an acceptably low risk. When you're dealing with people you're familiar with and are confident will follow guidelines, "you can space tables out, you can set a food table where people go up individually, and you can maintain all of these safety measures," he says. But with public venues, Russo points out, "you're at the whim of who happens to be there and how they're behaving at the moment."

Will people be wearing masks?

Whole Foods line for groceries

Indeed, how other people behave figures heavily in Russo's calculus. He is a big proponent of wearing masks, and he makes plans after considering whether other people will be wearing them or are likely to flout the whole idea.

"Using masks is always better than not using masks," he says. "It's when you get into situations with close contact with individuals for more than a transient timeframe that your risk is going to increase, particularly if individuals are demonstrating bad behavior and not wearing masks." To learn which mask to avoid, check out This Is the Face Mask the CDC Doesn't Want You to Wear.

How much control do I have over the situation?

Girl wearing mask in movie theater seat

When Russo weighs making plans involving himself and his family, he prefers to enter into situations in which he has as much control as possible over these important variables, so that he doesn't find himself surprised by a suddenly dangerous environment.

"If you go to a drive-in movie, you can control that. You're in your car. Even if you want to venture to the bathroom with a mask, that would probably be safe," he says. "Or if you want to take an RV across the country, that's like a moving house with known entities that you're traveling with, and then you can pick sights that are less crowded or maintain distancing. Some things are unpredictable and you can't control them. Others are more controllable." He picks the latter whenever possible.

What's the risk versus the reward?

People on a hike

It's not feasible for everyone to isolate indoors forever or even until there is a coronavirus vaccine. But when Russo decides to expose himself to any potential risk, he does it after considering how important it is to his quality of life. For instance: Is it an ordinary grooming appointment or a once-in-a-lifetime family milestone? And he suggests others also weigh their own personal vulnerabilities—such as age and existing health conditions—against the potential risks, too.

"By no means am I advocating that we should isolate ourselves. I think getting out is good, but try to do it under circumstances where you have a sense of what you're getting into and how people are going to be behaving," he says. "I'm a big fan of getting out in a safe way." If you're looking for creative ways to enjoy your summer, check out 19 Summer Hobbies You Can Still Do During Quarantine.

Best Life is constantly monitoring the latest news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed. Here are the answers to your most burning questions, the ways you can stay safe and healthy, the facts you need to know, the risks you should avoid, the myths you need to ignore,and the symptoms to be aware of. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up to date.
Alesandra Dubin
Alesandra Dubin is a lifestyle editor and writer based in Los Angeles. Read more
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