Many years ago, at the beginning of my career in health care, a community nurse told a few of my colleagues and me that she makes sure she washes her hands often, even after shaking hands with someone. I will never forget that moment, and the feeling I had when she said that.
I said to her, “Really? That sounds pretty extreme.” I was thinking, “Boy, that sounds odd. She must have obsessive-compulsive disorder or something.” I was comparing her to a relative I have that used to wash his hands a lot. My colleagues were just as taken aback by that nurse’s statement.
She was confident and very matter-of-fact. Her words left quite an impression on me. After some time passed, I thought to myself, “She is a nurse. She must know her stuff. Do we really need to be worried about germs when we shake someone’s hand? Everyone does it. I don’t see how that could be a public health concern.”
Fast-forward – 25 years later. That nurse was way ahead of her time.
On March 11, 2020, an announcement was made that the World Health Organization has declared a COVID-19 pandemic, and in order to control the spread, “social distancing strategies” have been recommended. One of the specific directives includes “avoiding greetings that involve touching such as handshakes.”
I work in the community as a social worker. I have been greeting and shaking hands with my clients and their family members for years. Over time I learned that in order to prevent getting sick it is important to have clean hands and to not touch my face. Washing my hands before and after contact with my vulnerable and older clients became part of my “routine practices.” (I use hand sanitizer when soap and water aren’t available.)
However, having clean hands isn’t even enough now in this pandemic situation. Little did I know how risky this simple, well-meaning gesture can be. Getting too close is even risky.
Perhaps a friendly smile, head nod, and “Nice to meet you” is all that is needed for now.
And lots of handwashing.
Let’s help slow the spread of COVID-19 and keep a respectable and safe distance from each other. That nurse from 25 years ago knew her stuff.
Angela G. Gentile, MSW, RSW