The Interview: David Di John

Dr. Di John Photo

In the Age of COVID-19: How an Infectious Disease Doc and Family Live Their Lives

Dr. David Di John, who ran an HIV clinic in New York during the height of the AIDS crisis, hopes public awareness about good hygiene will carry on long after the coronavirus scare ends.

Just because Dr. David Di John has largely devoted his professional life to the treatment of infectious diseases doesn’t mean his personal life is immune from repeated discussions about the infectious coronavirus, COVID-19, an acute respiratory disease. 

Yes, as the program director of the UNLV Medicine Maternal Child Wellness Program is quick to point out, he and his wife, Felicia, and 9-year-old daughter, Ava Rose, stay abreast of the latest news about the newly identified virus and then talk about it, often at the dinner table.

“It’s important we talk things through — I think it is for all families, “says Di John, who at one point in his career headed AIDS clinics in New York City and at another worked with Amerindians in Venezuela in an effort to develop a malaria vaccine. “It’s mostly common sense, like coughing or sneezing into a tissue, staying home when you’re sick, that shouldn’t be ignored.” 

In other words, ignorance is not bliss.

He says families should be aware of the information on the virus on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website,

With more than 105,000 cases of COVID-19 worldwide and deaths near the 4,000 mark — health officials say Nevada now has four of the more than 500 cases in the U.S. — Di John says the virus that’s killed more than 20 Americans certainly deserves to get our attention…but not our panic. 

“I let my daughter know that good, standard hygiene can go a long way toward preventing someone from getting the virus,” says Di John, who’s also an associate professor of pediatrics with the School of Medicine. “My daughter knows I’m an infectious disease doctor, sees that I am not panicking, so she’s not overly worried.”

Someone sick with COVID-19, he notes, can cough or sneeze particles of the virus about six feet, and then they land on surfaces that we often touch, such as doorknobs, railings, grocery carts, chairs and elevator buttons. Given that research shows people touch their face about 23 times per hour, with about half the touches to the nose, eyes and mouth, the mucosal surfaces that the virus infects, it’s easy to see why Di John frequently reminds both his wife and daughter that handwashing is the best thing you can do to protect yourself from the virus.

Research done to determine the effect of handwashing on the risk of respiratory infection certainly bears that out. Eight studies referenced in a 2006 article in Tropical Medicine & International Health all found that handwashing lowered the risk of respiratory infection, with risk reductions ranging from 6 percent to 44 percent.  

“When we talk as a family about the coronavirus, we emphasize the importance of personal hygiene measures,” says Di John, who adds that he hopes such awareness will carry on long after the coronavirus scare ends, that people will be aware, for example, of the health problems that can be mitigated by just timely and proper handwashing. “That would be a real positive that could help public health in the future.”

Di John says when he takes his daughter to the grocery store he makes sure they do a quick wipe down of a grocery cart with antibacterial wipes that are on hand before using the cart. They’re handled by customers and employees all day, he notes, so it’s “just a good practice” to try and disinfect them.

Changing the way people are greeted is also something Di John says his family talks about. Instead of kissing and hugging and shaking hands, he says a wave and a smile or an elbow bump will do.

“I think the Japanese are onto something with the way they bow in greeting,” he says.  

Traveling during the outbreak is another area where common sense should be utilized, Di John says. He says it’s a good idea for everyone in the family to be aware of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC’s) Coronavirus Disease 2019 Information for Travel That way the entire family can be up to speed on what makes good sense, and what doesn’t. The website says crowded cruises don’t make good sense right now because there’s an increased risk of person to person spread of the coronavirus. And close proximity between passengers on a plane can also be a problem. 

“I”m not saying not to go on a plane, but you need to weigh its importance,” says Di John. “My family is still traveling places, but we’re doing it by car.”  

Even though he says common sense generally rules when it comes to trying to keep the coronavirus at bay, Di John says his family is aware that masks may seem like a good prevention tool, but they’re generally not effective. He says the kind available at pharmacies and discount stores for the general population work well against large particles like dust but not for tiny particles like the COVID-19 virus.

“They give you a false sense of security,” he says.

Special masks worn by healthcare professionals to prevent respiratory disease must be worn properly and tested to provide a proper seal, according to Di John. Even healthcare workers must learn how to properly remove the mask or they may contaminate themselves, he says. 

Also not making good sense, he says, is stockpiling months worth of things like water, toilet paper and food. “You should have a plan in place in case you or a family member gets sick and you can’t leave the house for a few days — like having a reasonable supply of water, food and medicines.” 

“If families have discussions about the coronavirus and how they’re going to deal with it, they’ll be much better off,” Di John says. “Knowledge keeps us all safer.”