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Washed Away

by Deirdre Kelly

photography by Chris Robinson

Wash your hands, physical distance, wash your hands. And then wash your hands again. In the fight against COVID-19, basic hygiene has become the drill. Everyone now knows this. But what people might not know is whom to thank for giving us all a fighting chance against the pandemic, and by using only the simplest of methods. 

Fittingly, she’s a germ expert, as the journalists across the land who’ve been seeking out her counsel for their COVID-19 coverage have taken to calling her. But Dasantila Golemi-Kotra, a professor in the Department of Biology at York University, is much more than this. A biochemist through her advanced academic training at Wayne State and Yale Universities in the U.S., Golemi-Kotra switched to microbiology soon after coming to York in 2004, where her research on antibiotic resistance has made her an international authority on infectious disease. She is – if this is not putting too high a gloss on it – something of a pandemic-era celebrity right now. 

It’s an old method that our overdependence on wonder drugs has tended to sideline. But its effectiveness cannot be denied

Ever since the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus a global health crisis in March of this year, her knowledge about how pathogens spread – and, conversely, how they can be stopped dead in their tracks – has become much sought-after by governments, public health officials, the media and, now, the public, all of them regarding her as a scientist whose trusted expertise they can readily follow. And that’s mainly because her lucid advice about how to weather the pandemic is so straightforward. “Washing your hands is key,” she says. “It’s an old method that our overdependence on wonder drugs has tended to sideline. But its effectiveness cannot be denied. Hand hygiene alone can curb the spread of the virus, and other diseases as well.”

Golemi-Kotra practises what she preaches. She is scrupulous about washing her hands, a habit she learned early on as the daughter of a dentist in Albania. She does other things to mitigate her chances of contracting the virus as well, like the wearing of masks in populous places and being careful not to touch her face – common-sense practices she helped make widespread by frequently emphasizing their importance as a form of disease control in several dozen media reports published during the pandemic. Another safety measure she both follows and recommends is to change out of clothes worn outdoors into a fresh (or, let’s say, uncontaminated) set reserved for indoor use only. Microorganisms do cling to surfaces, and that includes our clothes. Golemi-Kotra discovered this first-hand while studying the spread of bacterial infections in hospital settings. 

To her amazement, she often witnessed doctors and nurses on their breaks in communal cafeteria or outdoor spaces wearing the clothes in which they saw patients. Any passing encounter with an airborne pathogen had the potential to become embedded on their clothes. But some of the health professionals she encountered, clearly not thinking through the consequences of their actions, continued to wear easily contaminated clothing on their hospital rounds, unwittingly spreading illnesses they were tasked to treat. 

The only really good thing about this virus is that soap and water will do it a lot of damage

“I was in Germany once, doing research at a hospital there, and one of the doctors wore his white lab coat into the staff lunchroom, and I couldn’t believe it,” says Golemi-Kotra, her normally calm and confident voice rising with indignation at the memory. “He saw that I was agitated and asked if I had a problem with him. I firmly pointed out, ‘You can’t be wearing these clothes in here and then return to your patients! You could harm them!’ But, like everyone else, he thought that if there were an infection, an antibiotic would fix it.” 

But a funny thing happened on the way to the pharmacy. Bacteria, already smart, grew smarter as a result of the many antibiotics tossed at them over the years. They evolved to become more adept at eluding their vanquishing by meds. Today’s superbugs pose a real threat to our health-care systems, and to people’s lives. “Even a common skin infection can become life-threatening,” Golemi-Kotra says. “Our drugs no longer work as well as they once did.” Which brings us back to hand-washing. 

In the absence of a cure-all, prevention remains the best medicine. This is as true for bacterial infections as it is for a viral contagion – presently the bane of everyone’s existence. “Wearing pathogen-blocking masks, changing out of your outdoor clothes once home, avoiding touching your face and diligently washing your hands are all accessible strategies that can truly make a difference in keeping us well and alive,” Golemi-Kotra says. “The only really good thing about this virus is that soap and water will do it a lot of damage. Definitely, as we all go back indoors and kids return to school, hygiene becomes critical.”  ■

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