• Conquer COVID-19

Go ahead and go for a Drive, says Doctor and Co-founder of Conquer COVID-19

We need to take precautions, says Dr. Ruby Alvi, but driving can help preserve our mental health.

Stephanie Wallcraft By: Stephanie Wallcraft May 7, 2020

Since the lockdown measures began in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, we’ve heard the same things time and again: stay at home, keep a distance, and wash your hands.

This is all extremely important, of course, not only for our safety and that of others but to collectively do our part in getting to the other side of this thing as soon as possible.

But those of us who find solace in going for a drive have been asking ourselves: do we really need to keep our cars parked at all times? What if we can go for a drive without ever coming into contact with another person?

Dr. Ruby Alvi is a family doctor in Mississauga, Ont., and is a co-founder of Conquer COVID-19, a volunteer organization sourcing and delivering personal protective equipment for frontline workers. Alvi says that while it requires taking some precautions, there’s no problem at all with driving for the sake of driving.

“I think of your car as an extension of your home, of your living space,” Alvi says. “If it’s safe to be at home, then it’s safe to be inside your car.”

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The important distinction, she says, is that we’re used to using our cars for things like meeting up with friends or bringing them along for the ride, and those sorts of scenarios remain off the table. Concerns around this type of behaviour are what have kept several public health units from permitting recreational driving during the lockdowns.

“You’re not going to be driving to a place to hang out with people,” she says. “You’re not going to pick people up like you normally would. You’re not going to be in a car with people that aren’t in your household. As long as you’re being responsible about it, I actually think it’s a good thing for your own well-being.”

Physical Distance Doesn’t Mean Social Distance

Alvi adds that there’s an important distinction between the concepts of physical distancing and social distancing. Feeling connected is more important than ever, and our cars can help to facilitate those connections responsibly.

“Early on in this pandemic, the [term] social distancing was used a lot,” Alvi says. “I had a big problem with that. We actually want people to be social because you need to be for your mental health, and I think the car is a great vehicle for that.

“I have patients who are doing deliveries for older people in the neighborhood who don’t have anybody around who can do it for them, and then they’re sitting in their car talking on the phone through the window so that these people can see somebody as they’re talking to them. I can’t stress enough the importance of social connectedness right now. It’s actually going to save people’s lives.”

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Alvi has teenage children who are mourning the loss of rituals such as prom and graduation. She says that her kids have been asking her about safe ways to stay connected with their friends.

“[They ask,] ‘can we drive to a parking lot and park our cars far enough away and at least have a coffee with each other?’” Alvi says. “Yeah, you totally can. That’s perfectly okay.

“You need to be at least two metres away from each other, preferably more. Sitting in your car with the back open, yelling across a parking lot to your friends and seeing them, is so incredibly powerful for connection.”

Safely Navigating the Rituals of the Road

There are certain needs that may come up while you’re out for a drive. You may have a very hard time finding a public restroom that’s open, for example, so it’s best to take care of those particular needs ahead of time. But what if you want to grab that aforementioned coffee or find you’re hankering for a quick bite to eat?

Many of the coffee shops and fast food restaurants that have remained open have protocols in place to reduce contact as much as possible – we’ve all heard of the debit machines being held out of take-out windows taped to hockey sticks, for example – but Dr. Alvi suggests going a step further and checking whether your favourite location has an app available for ordering and pre-paying to minimize interpersonal interaction.

At some point, it’s also inevitable that the gas tank will need to be topped up. Alvi says that some fuel station chains have apps to help with this process as well.

“They’re really cool,” she says. “You punch in the pump you’re at, tell them how much gas you want, and the only time you really need to get out of your car is to pump the gas in and then wash your hands – they have hand sanitizer at almost every gas station – and get back in the car.”

Keep Those Hands Clean

Cleaning your hands as much as possible is key to avoiding viral infection. While Dr. Alvi says that evidence remains minimal of the novel coronavirus being transmitted from a surface such as a gas pump or a coffee cup, the best way to protect yourself is to avoid touching your face with unwashed hands and to clean your hands as soon as possible after interacting with potentially contaminated surfaces.

A 20-second wash with soap and water is the most effective method for destroying viruses, but that’s not always an option on the road. Alvi suggests keeping hand sanitizer in the car that you can apply as soon as you sit back down in the driver’s seat and before interacting with surfaces in your vehicle.

She points out that she sees people wearing gloves the entire time that they’re in public, including while driving, a practice that offers little protection.

“The gloves are really no different than your hands when you get out of the car,” she says. “If you touch something like a gas pump that’s dirty that lots of other people have touched and you get back in your car with those same gloves on, you’re contaminating the inside of your car.

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“It’s much better to scrap the gloves, use the pump, wash your hands, and then get back in your car with your clean hands. If you do use gloves, they should be discarded right after you pump your gas, and then you still wash your hands.”

Dr. Alvi says she sees people wearing masks while they’re driving, which is also unnecessary. Any mask that’s not rated N95, the class reserved for healthcare workers, is intended not to protect the wearer but to protect others from being infected in the event that you have the virus and don’t know it. It’s therefore safe to drive without it and put it on just before you exit your vehicle, as long as you do so with clean hands.

“You don’t need to protect yourself from yourself,” Alvi says.

She also points out that if your car is equipped with touchless features, now is the time to make use of them.

“There are certain features on cars that are really handy like keyless entry or where your trunk can open on its own,” Alvi says. “Not everybody has those features, but if you can keep that key fob in your pocket or in your purse, that’s probably a good idea.”

Disinfecting Your Car Properly

Even with the strictest precautions, most car owners want to disinfect their vehicles at regular intervals as the lockdown measures continue.

Matt Girgis, managing director of Volvo Car of Canada, says the different surfaces in your vehicle benefit from different approaches.

“Your leather [surfaces such as] seats, shifter, steering wheel, and dashboard, those are parts of the vehicle that are often high-touch,” Girgis says. “There, you can use a simple bleach solution, a mixture of water and bleach.”

Girgis says to mix five tablespoons of bleach with a gallon (3.75 litres) of water, then put the mixture into a spray bottle and spray it onto a clean hand towel to apply it.

The same method can be used for applying soap and water, which is the best solution for surfaces such as touchscreens, buttons, carpets, and non-leather textiles, as well as external surfaces such as door handles, mirrors, and gas caps.

Rubbing alcohol can cause damage to vehicle surfaces and is not recommended. It’s important to test your solution on a low-visibility area before applying it broadly. And if you’re in any doubt, consult your owner’s manual.

“You should only disinfect the vehicle as needed,” Girgis says. “It’s kind of difficult to know what that looks like now, but there is a long-term effect on the material. So, you have to keep that in mind when you are using these solutions because discoloration or excessive wear can happen if you’re not cleaning properly.”

Volvo Car of Canada and Conquer COVID-19

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So, how is it that Volvo and Conquer COVID-19 come into the same discussion?

Weeks ago, as Conquer COVID-19 was created to help gather and deliver personal protective equipment to frontline workers, Volvo Car of Canada offered the use of corporate vehicles to help facilitate those deliveries.

“Volvo came in to help us deliver PPE to frontline workers really early on in the game,” Dr. Alvi says. “We’ve worked really hard to get the PPE, but the biggest challenge we have is getting it out to the people who need it.

“They donated cars with gas, with insurance, so that our volunteers could go out and deliver it.”

Girgis says that once the lockdown measures came into effect, Volvo saw mobilizing its grounded fleets as an effective way to help during the crisis.

“[Conquer COVID-19] needed to transport this PPE from the warehouses where they congregate it all to the different frontline workers that need it,” Girgis says. “We were able to offer them a fleet of vehicles that aren’t being utilized right now given the lockdowns that we’re under so that they could safely transport this PPE to those that need it the most and make a difference.”