• Beau Steward

PPE For The General Public - COVID-19 Pandemic

Let's talk about personal protective equipment, or PPE, in relation to the current ongoing pandemic of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19. I'm referring to masks, shields, gloves, etc.

There's a strong misunderstanding by the public on how to use PPE, and what medical grade PPE is, as well as what the PPE available to the public is capable of. So I'll cover a few things.

N95 masks you get from local stores, such as hardware stores, is different from the medical masks that are available. The general purpose N95 mask is more of a dust mask that is not really designed to protect you from biological agents. Will they protect you? Sure. To some degree. And then there's surgical masks, all the way down to the fabric washable masks that are now becoming popular.

N95 dust masks are designed to handle dust and allergens. They are designed to make a good fit around your mouth and nose, but they do not seal. Most have a check valve in order to help CO2 escape easier. These types of masks are good for protecting yourself, but not for protecting others from you. Your exhaled breath escapes unfiltered and even a cough can still send contaminated particles out. If you know you are not infected, then these should be fine. Understand that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic and you could be infected without knowing.

There are also so called N99 masks around with the filter with 2 holes in it. Often these go into a cloth and neoprene mask of some kind. The holes are for removable check valves. Understand that these are not nearly as protective as true N95 masks, even though that number is higher. The problem comes from the cheaply made leaky check valves. Air is going to pass through openings with the least resistance. These can be greatly improved with some modification, and maybe I'll get around to posting about this. They are protective, but much like N95 dust masks, they primarily protect you, not those around you.

Medical grade masks, which tend to be colored a blue-ish color, are designed to seal on your face. I believe many use an adhesive to stick to your face. These are designed to prevent intake and exhaust of contaminants. When fitted properly, these can be very uncomfortable to wear for long periods of time, which we are asking of our medical personnel. These provide the most protection to you and the people around you. Given their design, once they are removed from your face, they tend to need disposal as they lose their effectiveness, especially if an adhesive was used.

Surgical masks are designed to prevent direct deposit of contaminants to a patient. They generally do not seal around your face. They are designed to protect the people around you, but not protect you from other people. This is what you should go for if you know you are infected.

Cloth (cotton, linen, denim, etc) masks are a minimally protective mask similar to a surgical mask. While they will not stop something as small as a virus particle, they take advantage of the fact that virus particles tend to be carried on larger particles. These are designed to provide easy breathing and to minimize the spread of particles from a cough or sneeze. If you can't get your hands on surgical masks, these will work in a pinch, but you should limit your exposure to the public.

None of these masks are effective if just worn on your chin. If you find a mask uncomfortable, don't wear it at all. Take your remaining stock and donate to those who can use them. I've been seeing at least half the people wearing masks out in public just pulling them down to their chin and leaving it there. You don't get viral infections on your chin. You get them when you inhale them. You don't cough out of your chin, the particles come out of your mouth and nose. Either wear it properly or you are part of the problem.

There's no reason a non-medical person should be wearing a shield. If you have shields and are not actively working with infected people, give those shields to medical personnel.

Latex, vinyl, and nitrile gloves used for medical related or lab purposes are for preventing cross-contamination. Medical personnel will change gloves between patients. In a lab, gloves will be changed when cross contamination needs prevented. In both scenarios, and others, such as automotive work, they also serve to protect the skin from chemicals which could cause the skin harm.

I've seen a couple of problems with the general public's use of gloves.

First, people are wearing them in a store and then interacting with things, people, and themselves. When wearing gloves, your interactions should be limited to what you don't want to spread contaminants from. If you push a shopping cart and then touch your steering wheel while wearing gloves, any contaminants on the gloves have been spread. Should you decide to not wear gloves with the steering wheel afterward, you risk the contaminants getting on your hands. The gloves have not served their expected purpose.

Additionally, I've seen gloves not being disposed of properly. I saw one parking lot littered with many many used gloves. As much as people seem to care about their health, they still don't care about the environment they have to live in, clearly.

Probably the better option is to not glove your hands. Carry a spray canister of 60-70% alcohol and spray your shopping cart push bar or carry basket handle. Use a stylus on pay terminals and make sure you keep it clean between uses. Most importantly, wash your hands thoroughly. And of course, avoid touching your face.

I have a problem with that last one. It's super difficult and tends to happen without even thinking about it. I've found wearing a mask helps as a reminder to not touch my face, though. I have 91-99% isopropynol that I mix with some water to dilute to 70% that I then put in a small pocketable mister bottle. It helps spread my supply of alcohol out. And at the same time, I'm being protective without being wasteful. There's decent recipes around if you want to make hand sanitizer that doesn't dry out your hands.

For the most part, the general public does not need medical grade PPE. The best advice is to stay at home as much as possible. Just keep practicing social distancing and isolation. Yeah, it sucks, and I am getting stir crazy myself, but it's far better at protecting you and the people around you than trying to use (misuse?) PPE.

If you have to go out, practice good hygiene (wash yo damn hands) and wear at least a minimally protective mask over your face holes, not on your chin. Practice social distancing. And for the love of all things, be fucking patient. Just because you haven't been personally infected (to your knowledge) nor have you known someone infected (to your knowledge) doesn't mean it's not happening nor will it not happen to you. The only way we can beat this is to cooperate and behave rationally.

Let's not be part of the problem that causes this pandemic to continue. We're close to 1000 deaths per day and we can prevent that rate if we just do our part. Globally, we have 1.25 million confirmed cases, and due to insufficient testing and asymptomatic infected, it's speculated actual infection count is an order of magnitude higher (12.5 million). We've crossed 66k deaths globally. At the rate things are going, we're suppose to anticipate 100k to 240k deaths just in the US. This will become a reality, if not much worse, if we don't do our part.

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