Full disclosure, I am a germaphobe and have suppressed my obsessive tendencies since I discovered them as a pre-teen. Like most of us, I was taught about hygiene around the 5th grade. You know, when kids are on the verge of stinking if they don’t shower often enough. Since that time when I learned about bacteria and other germs, I made sure to wash my hands often. Then, one day around 7th grade, I watched an after-school special (Gen X-ers will remember those). It was about a kid who was an obsessive hand-washer due to his OCD. As I watched this kid struggle I had an epiphany. I was that kid! My hands were chapped. I avoided touching things, just in case. I would never drink from someone else’s cup or share a spoon. I was a germaphobe!
A phobia is an extreme or irrational fear. I had taken it to the irrational level thinking everything I was doing could keep me from catching a germ. At the time I realized my folly, I understood that trying to protect oneself completely is impossible. As I have studied, I learned why trying to do so is dangerous. I am afraid that with the response to COVID-19, we are becoming, as a civilized society, germaphobes. The risk of such phobic behavior has the potential to be infinitely more harmful than the novel coronavirus we have been trying to stop.
Immunology is the study of the immune system or how the body responds to foreign substances or infectious organisms. The basic tenets of Immunology concern exposure to a pathogen and the body’s ability to fight it off. There are many weapons against invaders so, keep in mind that I am just touching upon the very basics. B-cells seek out pathogens and attack them. T-cells find infected cells and kill off the cell so the pathogen cannot reproduce. This process can take a week or more. Whenever these types of cells go to work, they create armies of these antibodies and they also record the way they attacked the antigen so that should a person ever be exposed to an antigen again, the body will be ready to the point where the likelihood of another infection is extremely low. This is why when I was a kid and had chickenpox, my parents made my siblings play with me to get it, too. That way, we would all have it and would develop lifelong immunity to the disease. In addition to T and B-cells, and there are many different types, there are also substances that we can ingest that help boost our immune system. This is seen when a newborn, who does not have an active immune system, is given antibodies through her mother’s milk or when people get an immunoglobulin shot.
The key to developing a strong and healthy immune system is to gain exposure to a wide variety of germs and letting our bodies fight off those antigens and build armies against them for the future. If we are never exposed, we cannot develop antibodies to fight off the infection. This is the basis for vaccination, expose a person to a virus so their immune system can develop the antibodies necessary to fight it off if exposed to the virus again. If enough people in a community have developed the antibodies to fight off an infection, herd immunity is achieved and the spread of the disease is negligible.
There are germs on and around us at all times. Most perform a vital function in the balance of life. If a host becomes immunocompromised, germs can proliferate unchecked. We have to keep our immune systems ready to fight off diseases. What we do not exercise becomes weak. If you completely isolated yourself for long enough, you would not be exposed to any new or changing germs. When you entered into society again, you would most likely get sick from some antigen that your peers had already developed immunity against. This is the danger of prolonged social distancing! We need to share our germs to survive as a species. You cannot develop a strong immune system by isolating yourself. Likewise, if we kill off or block the germs we need to maintain ecological balance with copious use of disinfectant wipes, excessive hand sanitizing and washing, and ubiquitous use of masks, we will not only throw off the balance but we will also have a more severe flu and cold season than we have seen in a very long time.
The notion that we need to shelter in place until a vaccine is developed, is preposterous. We are so focused on the virulence of the Coronavirus that we are completely ignoring the fact that now is the time most of us should be sharing and therefore building up immunity to the flus and colds that will hit us later. These are the same flus and colds for which they have never created an effective vaccine. It is shortsighted to focus only on COVID-19, and that is just from an immunological point of view, the social and financial dangers, notwithstanding. Viruses move through communities quickly. If we have not developed herd immunity to COVID-19 at this point, which I truly believe we either have or are close, then let’s fight it head-on. Those with compromised immune systems and others with higher risk factors need not be in the fray. Those are the individuals who should shelter in place. The rest of us need to share our germs. If we remained isolated, there will never be a good time to rebalance.
In my opinion, and I share this with many other professionals who are much smarter and more educated than I, it is now time to ease back into society. It should be a process. Stop wearing your mask unless you are symptomatic, have a high probability of being an asymptomatic carrier, or around people who are known to be susceptible. Ease up on the sanitizing of every surface. Shake hands. Hug. Meet with friends and neighbors. Be social. Obviously, do all of these things with those who do not appear to be at risk or with those who may have been exposed. Staying inside might have been important while we were analyzing the threat and flattening the curve, but now it is time to save lives by not staying in.