RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
We’re all going to need to keep social distancing through the summer. That’s according to Dr. Deborah Birx. She’s the coordinator of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. And this is just another example of how, even after regulations start to ease, there will be a new normal. How will things change in the post-pandemic world? Is this the end of handshakes? What about salad bars? Are we going to stay tethered to technology to keep the virus at bay? NPR’s Allison Aubrey has been looking into all of this and joins us now. Hi, Allison.
ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: Good morning.
MARTIN: We assume that there will come a time when we return to places like malls, train stations, these crowded venues. Are there new ideas out there about how to keep these spaces clean, disinfected?
AUBREY: Well, one idea is to use UV light to clean public spaces – UVC light, to be specific. It’s currently used in the health care setting to sterilize small tools because it can destroy viruses and bacteria. You may have seen this in a dentist’s office. I spoke to Andrea Armani. She’s a researcher at University of Southern California, and she’s looking into this.
ANDREA ARMANI: Currently, one area that I’m collaborating with an expert in robotics on is, actually, developing a semi-autonomous robot that is able to kind of go into spaces, clean areas, but where the human operator is not with the robot.
MARTIN: OK. And we should say the president did mention UV light last week, but this is different. We should be clear – we’re not talking about disinfecting people.
AUBREY: Absolutely. The president tossed out the idea of using UV light on or in people, which would be dangerous. It could cause skin cancer. The idea here is to use light to disinfect surfaces – not people, as you say. And to be safe, these cleaning robots, if they come to pass, would be used overnight, when no one is around.
MARTIN: So another thing I want to talk about – you know, the changes we’ve seen in our life already. If you call a doctor, it’s likely they’ll have you do a tele-appointment, you know, some kind of video conference. And video conferences are all the rage now. It’s what we’re all doing. If we have the luxury…
MARTIN: …Of working from home, we’re on these computers all the time. Is any of that going to stick?
AUBREY: You know, I think a lot of this will become part of the new normal – not just virtual visits with our health care providers, we may also be using more gadgets in our home to monitor our health. For instance, last week, a doctor wrote an opinion piece in The New York Times about a simple device that’s as easy to use as a thermometer – it’s called a pulse oximeter – to measure oxygen saturation. He suggested that this may be helpful for people with COVID or COVID symptoms to flag a drop in oxygen levels. The idea is it can provide a kind of early warning of the breathing problems associated with COVID pneumonia.
Now, it seems this idea was noted by a lot of people. At the moment, it’s not so easy to find one available online. When I looked last night, they were back-ordered. And outside of COVID, pulse oximeters could be used for people with asthma or kind of other lung conditions.
MARTIN: I think the idea of having one of those at home would be really liberating. I mean, are…
AUBREY: That’s right. Because the doctor calls and says, you know, how’s the breathing? And if you had this pulse oximeter, you might, you know, have a more objective measure, right?
MARTIN: Right. So, Allison, then, how could this idea of all of us wanting to be more self-reliant at home, how could that affect testing for COVID-19.
AUBREY: Well, you know, I think we’re going to move towards more testing options at home. Last week, LabCorp introduced an at-home test kit for COVID-19. Brian Caveney – he’s the chief medical officer and president of LapCorp Diagnostics. He told me, at the moment, they can produce about 100,000 of these per week.
BRIAN CAVENEY: It’s essentially a kit with everything that you need in it. We send it to you. Then you can follow the directions in the box, swab yourself, quickly send it back to us overnight by FedEx, and then we process it in our laboratories on the same exact machines that we’re running all the rest of our COVID tests.
AUBREY: Now, for now, this is mostly only available to health care workers, first responders, given limited supplies of tests. But Caveney says the plan is to expand. And we may see more of this kind of in-home testing in the future.
MARTIN: Allison, I know there are a lot of apps in development to help track the virus. We’ve heard about the importance of being able to track it. How would those work?
AUBREY: Sure. Well, in Australia, the government has launched something called Covidsafe. It’s an app that traces every person using the app who has been in contact with someone else using the app who has tested positive for the virus. Now, this is an attempt to kind of speed up contact tracing, to make it more efficient. And separately, lots of us are familiar with the traffic app Waze that tells you when…
AUBREY: …There are traffic jams or closed roads up ahead, right? Well, a group at a lab at Yale University is developing an app that’s like a Waze for respiratory diseases. I spoke to Nicholas Christakis about how it works.
NICHOLAS CHRISTAKIS: Individuals can choose to participate to share information about their symptoms, to share information about their location and their social interaction. And that data can then be processed in an anonymous way, then fed back to users to indicate where risks of coronavirus and other respiratory pathogens are higher or lower.
AUBREY: So this wouldn’t replace apps that governments use, but it could be another alternative.
MARTIN: So I led off with this in our intro, but let’s talk about cultural changes we could see in this new normal. Salad bars, Allison – I mean, is there any way we’re still going to go to salad bars?
AUBREY: You know, I think people are going to be wary of salad bars, buffets, given all those shared serving utensils.
AUBREY: Also, bumping up against each other in a crowded bar? People are going to…
MARTIN: Yeah. Right. Bar life.
AUBREY: …Remain hesitant. That could change. Yeah. As for greetings, we may not go back to everyone hugging, kissing, handshaking. I mean, there was a time in the 19th century, early 20th century, when spitting in public was common. There were spittoons at hotels and banks. But this kind of disappeared from public life. And it’s – part of it was because of what happened with the 1918 flu pandemic. So, you know, it’s in our nature to be social, to gather in groups, but when we start doing this again, our greetings may be replaced by some kind of no-touch or low-touch alternative – so, you know, perhaps a bow.
MARTIN: I like the foot dance that we saw on…
AUBREY: I like that one, too.
MARTIN: That’s my preference.
AUBREY: (Laughter) Right.
MARTIN: NPR’s Allison Aubrey, thank you so much for your reporting. We appreciate it.
AUBREY: All right. Thank you.
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