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How Safe Is Holiday Shopping? Going to the Dentist? A Virologist Weighs In

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The following article was originally published Dec. 11, 2020, and republished through a collaboration with KPCC and LAist.

Story by Gina Pollack

Assessing personal safety has not been easy lately, given the abundance of mixed signals and confusing public health messages we've been getting. 

So we reached out to Professor Paula Cannon, a virologist at USC Keck School of Medicine, for her professional take of which activities carry the highest, and lowest, risk during this holiday season.

The Bai Holiday ice rink stays open throughout the holiday season. | Courtesy Bai Holiday Ice Rink, via LAist
The Bai Holiday ice rink stays open throughout the holiday season. | Courtesy Bai Holiday Ice Rink, via LAist

Find the full audio interview with Cannon below.

For context, Los Angeles is currently riding a wave of broken records — on December 10, 12,819 new coronavirus cases were reported in a single day. Mayor Garcetti has said that someone dies from the virus every hour in Los Angeles, and every 20 minutes in L.A. County. Restaurants are closed. Non-essential travel is against the rules. Business capacity is low. And all of Southern California is under a regional state-prescribed Stay-At-Home Order.

With the vaccine on its way, there is a light at the end of the tunnel. 

But Professor Cannon told our news and culture show Take Two that even though it's hard, and we're all suffering from pandemic fatique times a thousand, "we need to keep following the advice and the rules from our officials."

Here's her take on being out and about during the holidays. 

Important note: Your personal risk depends on many factors, including your age and health, the prevalence of the virus in your area, and the precautions you take during any of these activities.

HOLIDAY SHOPPING: Get in and Get Out

Cannon says she has two goals this year when shopping for gifts this year: to support local stores and buy things as safely as possible.To do that, she suggests first going online to see if the things you want to buy locally can be ordered virtually.

If the store doesn't have a great website, "and you can forgive them for that!", she says, "I call them and I ask them what are they doing? Some of them are like, you know if you come in at 8 o'clock on Tuesday, we're not going to have anyone else in. Others are like, 'tell me what you want, come up in your car and we'll drop off gifts for you."

Yes, it's more effort, Cannon admits, but it's doable — and it could make a difference between spreading the virus and staying safe.

In terms of actually going into stores in-person, she has some tips:

  • Look in from outside — does it seem like the store is actually below 20% capacity, as it should begiven the current guidelines? Is everyone inside wearing masks? If it looks crowded, consider hanging back or visiting another day.
  • Is there a "culture of care" in the store? I.e. do they value safety and are they going the extra mile to help customers feel secure? Check their website/social media presence. If they're talking about these things and have extra bottles of hand sanitzer, are being careful about tracking occupancy, etc., chances are they care and are doing their best. That's a sign.
  • Be efficient. "This is not a time to browse. This is a time to be surgical," Cannon says. Figure out what you need to buy and get in and out as soon as possible.

NON-EMERGENCY DOCTOR'S APPOINTMENTS: Low Risk if You're Mindful

A medical clunic in Maywood that offers covid-19 testing. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
A medical clunic in Maywood that offers covid-19 testing. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

Have you been holding off on that regular doctor's appointment you were supposed to check off your list back in March? We're talking physicals, cervical cancer screenings (for women), mammograms, physical therapy, regular scheduled check-ups ...

Cannon says doctor's offices tend to be very clean and quite safe and at this point in the pandemic, they're "a well oiled machine." But while you're there, pay attention.

"This morning, I actually went and had my annual physical in Pasadena at USC's Keck Medicine and I was impressed by all the procedures that are in place now; everyone is wearing a mask and wearing it well," she says. "But I also did my part. I was paying attention I wasn't just looking on my phone I was making sure I didn't get close to other people. I let other people go in the elevator by themselves. And I didn't just, you know, don my grocery outfit. I actually put on a much more uncomfortable and tight-fitting mask."

And she took it one step further. "I also wore goggles because they help, you know? And I thought, 'I look stupid, but I probably also look like a hero.' It was hard but I'm only going to be in there for an hour."

She says that little bit of extra mindfulness can go a long way.

DENTIST APPOINTMENTS: Low Risk but Do Your Homework

Many Dentists in California have suspended non essential or non urgent treatments to help slow the spread of COVID-19. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
Many Dentists in California have suspended non essential or non urgent treatments to help slow the spread of COVID-19. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

Dentists are experts at infection control, Cannon says. 

"Frankly, they have a vested interest in this, as they are more at more risk than you are, spending all day in close proximity to people's open mouths with the potential to breathe in Covid from an infected patient," she explained. 

But ask your dentist specifically what they are doing to ensure extra safety. 

"I went to my own dentist, and they had reconfigured their rooms for procedures that generate aerosols like drilling, extract air," Cannon says. "They also required me to have a Covid test 72 hours before going for my appointment, and like many healthcare workers, they were wearing both masks and face shields. I felt very safe."

Keeping our mouths healthy is important for our overall health, and should not be considered something to be put off. Especially if you've gone through most of the year not getting your teeth cleaned and checked, Cannon says.

But if you have no issues, you could also consider delaying this until late spring or early summer when vaccines are expected to be much more widely available. It all comes down to your individual comfort level ... and the state of your, shall we say, oral health.

DAYCARE: Only if it's Essential

A daycare center. | Chava Sanchez/LAist
A daycare center. | Chava Sanchez/LAist

This is a tricky one, Cannon says.

If you're an essential worker and you have no other option, then yes, your child should go to daycare, she told us. But if you're taking your child there for the social experience, then you might want to press pause until the vaccine arrives and/or the curve flattens again.

"I would suggest maybe that's something you can hold back on, just to help people who have no other option," Cannon says.

As we know, daycare is particularly challenging right now, especially for low income families. And even when childcare facilities follow all the guidelines, they can still have outbreaks.

So be mindful of that when making deicisions that are right for you and your family.

GOING TO THE PARK: Low Risk but Keep it in the Family

=Hermon (Arroyo Seco) Park's playground near Highland Park was still closed as of Monday morning. | Mariana Dale/ LAist
Hermon (Arroyo Seco) Park's playground near Highland Park was still closed as of Monday morning. | Mariana Dale/ LAist

"Outdoors is clearly massively less risky," Cannon says, "especially if it's not busy. But the risk is really about, who are you with outdoors? So again, remember the Stay At Home orders right say we shouldn't mix households."

That means, if you're going to the park or the beach or doing any outdoor activity with the people you live with, and you're able to maintain the right amount of social distance, go for it.

But now isn't the time to gather with 10 friends at Echo Park Lake for afternoon drinks.

"That extra ingredient of meeting up with your friends, even though yes it's safer outdoors than indoors, means you're adding something else to the recipe that's going to help this virus spread," Cannon says.

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