JEFFERSON CITY — Randall Williams really wants you to wash your hands


To hear him tell it, if you take 20 seconds with a bar of soap and get the backs of your hands and under your fingernails, you’ll be in good shape when the coronavirus comes.


The state’s public health chief is doing other things to get Missourians ready for the novel disease, too.


But he told lawmakers Monday that regular and rigorous use of soap and sanitizer is the first line of defense.


“The most important thing that will keep people from dying from (the coronavirus) is washing hands,” Williams said.


Other experts who testified before a special Missouri House committee Monday offered similar advice as the U.S. braces for outbreaks of the new disease that has infected tens of thousands of people abroad and is making inroads in several other states.


Dr. Stevan Whitt, an infectious disease specialist at MU Health Care, told lawmakers that Missourians feeling unwell should stay home unless they’re going to the hospital for care.


“If you’re sick, please stay at home,” he said. “Call in sick.”


He said Missourians should judge whether they need to go to a doctor this way: “If your grandma would send you to the doctor, you should go.”


But, he added, people who are not short of breath, not lightheaded and still able to eat and drink are good candidates for riding out the coronavirus like they would with any other virus.


Clay Dunagan, a top official with St. Louis-based BJC Healthcare, said early research indicates people should expect to deal with 14 days of the virus before symptoms really start to abate and he recommended they wait another 10 to 14 days after that before resuming normal activities.


The standard wait for the flu is a week, he said, "but I think we’re being a little more cautious with this."


During that time, experts also advised sick people to stay away from nursing homes and other places where vulnerable populations congregate, and vice versa.


“If you are sick or feeling sick, don’t go see your frail loved one,” Whitt, the MU Health Care doctor, said. “And if you are frail, don’t go see your sick loved one.”


Whitt also said doctors would appreciate if people would avoid the “classic hoarding mentality” that’s cleared department store shelves of filter masks in recent weeks.


“Those things do not particularly protect the wearer,” Whitt said. “They mostly protect people who are infected from transmitting the virus. They don’t really filter air, they trap particles.”


Williams, the state public health director, agreed.


“To wear masks (when you’re not sick), that’s just a false sense of security,” he said. “If you have (the virus) and you wear a mask, that’s helpful.”


Williams also offered a fairly optimistic take on the state's preparations for dealing with the virus when and if it comes to Missouri. (There were no confirmed cases of the virus here as of Monday afternoon.)


He said he's been having daily meetings on the issue since late January and has had productive conversations with local health providers as well as top federal officials since.


He also noted Missouri can now test for the disease and get results in six hours, which he said would aid efforts to help patients and contain the virus.


And he expressed confidence that the country's public health system would be better prepared for the virus than the system in China, where more than 80,000 people have been infected and 3,000 people have died.


"We have an incredibly robust public health system," Williams said, "so we do not think you’re going to see the numbers you see in China."