Masks, Gloves, Space Suits. What should I be using?


As we watch the news, we see the city, state, and national leaders discussing (or debating) the value of wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) and maintaining social distance. We observe that they are standing close together, not nearly the minimum of 6-feet apart, as has become the standard distance required, and nary a mask to be seen. Giving credit where it is due, Governor Baker is now "masked." 

North Shore city and towns have implemented "masks in stores" policies, and some have asked for "masks in public places." We see a wide variety of medical, surgical, procedure, and cloth masks, bandanas, and sundry face coverings being used to protect both wearer and neighbor—gloves of green and blue cover many hands at the gas station and grocery store. Sadly, we also see discarded gloves in parking lots and on the ground. 

Information is coming at us from all sides.  

Instructions regarding self and other's protection, what to use, where, and why, are changing daily. In four weeks, we have gone from a world where every face had a visible nose and mouth, to an array of colors, shapes, and sizes.

The most common questions asked right now are: 

  • What is the "right" protection?
  • What should I be wearing?
  • How do I know?

To answer accurately, we have to go back to "Coronavirus Basics."  

The virus is an infectious agent transmitted through the airway in what is known as "droplet." Our coughs, sneezes, and bodily secretions that result from either, carry the droplet, which in turn carries the virus. Even breath is thought to emit droplets, and so sharing space (and air) is an opportunity for the virus to be shared.  

What does a mask do? 

Masks come in all configurations - depending on the type, they do different things. The composition of the mask and its "filtration" ability, is key. The N95 masks are medical-grade and are considered to offer maximum protection by filtering 95% of particulate matter (particulate matter is dust, pollen, viruses... and carries “foreign particle” into our airway, into our systems). They contain a respirator filtration device that its cousin, the KN95 mask, does not have. However, the composition of the KN95 is similar to the N95 and is now considered acceptable by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) for medical-grade protection.  

Surgical or procedure masks are made of molded, pleated, or flat material. Generally, the more fragile and thinner the mask, the more easily torn or damaged, and lesser protection occurs. Sewn cloth masks, with two or three layers of material, and a sleeve or "pocket" availability for additional filtration (paper towel, coffee filter, sock), provide a barrier and serve as protection for the wearer and neighbor. YouTube is chock-full of DIY mask videos using a t-shirt, bandana, or sock.  

Remember: Your mask needs to be breathable (so you can actually use it), secure around your nose and mouth, and must provide plenty of coverage. The purpose of the mask is to "filter" particles, such as "the droplet" we mentioned earlier. 

Does the mask get dirty? 

Yes, in two ways: the mask is dirty from the inside and outside. Your breath is directly on the mask for the period of time you are using it. Any contaminants (bacterial or viral) will get "trapped" in the mask. On the outside, the highest risk of contamination is…YOU. Touching your mask with your hands (gloved or not) will be the primary way that the outside becomes "dirty" or contaminated. 

What is on our hands? 

Answer? More than you know...or want to know. During normal times, exposure to various "germs" allows us to develop immunity (and also allows us to catch colds). Now, with the emergence of a completely new virus to which there is only trace immunity, we must redefine "clean."  

Our hands are not dirty in and of themselves. It's what they come into contact with that poses potential risks. Much of the danger, is in fact, invisible. We are careful not to "cross contaminate" things we may get on our hands, like raw chicken, oily substances, household chemicals, and other biologics not polite to mention in print. We understand that our hands are the "feet" of germs. They do the spreading. 

With every point of contact with surfaces in our home, work, recreation, and entertainment, we are exposed to whatever is there...left by someone else. This is the method of transmission. We are also a culture that touches our faces, eyes, ears, nose, and mouth...all the time. 

In light of the possibility of coming into contact with COVID-19 in the community, we try to keep our hands off all communal property. We open doors with our elbow or push them open and closed with our feet. And then we touch cash…or the keypad on the credit card machine...or the gas pump handle. Isn't the best way to deal with that, to wear gloves? Well, yes and no.   

Gloves can often give a false sense of security.  

They are merely a layer between your skin and the offending agent. Once you have touched something with your gloved hand, true that it is not on your skin, but it might end up on your mask, your cheek, in your wallet, or on your steering wheel. Your gloved hands keep your skin clean, but can also lull you into a false sense of security. "Gloves will protect me." Yes, until you touch any part of anything with those "dirty gloves." 

Use gloves for isolated tasks, say at the gas pump, and discard them once your exposure is over. However, if you use clean hands to process your payment, you still need to wash or sanitize your hands after touching a keypad. I realize… it gets complicated. Bear with me.  

Peanut Butter. 

Your goal is to know when to use protective gear, how to carefully put it on and take it off, discard your disposable gloves properly, and remember that your skin is what needs to be kept clean. Using the "everything is covered with peanut butter" example is often effective.  

When you are at the grocery store, imagine every item you touch has peanut butter on it. The game is: don't get peanut butter anywhere but your hands. If you are successful, you will not move the peanut butter anywhere on your person or your belongings. You will have it on your hands, you will leave the store and sanitize your hands, and it will be removed. It's a powerful visual if you can "go with it," and it can be an excellent reminder of what's "clean and what's dirty." 

So... let’s recap: 

  • Masks? Yes, wear one whenever you are likely to be within 6-10 feet of others.  

  • Gloves? If you can use them properly and they are not a false sense of security, then yes, you should wear them in certain scenarios.  

  • Wash your hands in warm soapy water, dry with paper towels? Absolutely yes!  

  • Use of hand sanitizer? Yes, when soap and water are not available. 

  • Space suit? No, you probably don’t need one of these…unless that’s your “thing.” You do you. 

Friends, this too shall pass, but until it does, we owe it to each other and to ourselves, to remain as vigilant as possible against a common invisible enemy. 

protective gear, respirator filtration device, centers for disease control and prevention, covid-19, aberdeen, elder care