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Many of us are now wearing a mask and/or gloves in public to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and avoid contracting the illness. Although in theory, this limits the spread of COVID-19, it is not as simple as it sounds: I have seen many people contaminating their masks and faces while in public, compromising themselves and others.
Simply putting on a mask and gloves does not protect you from getting COVID-19. It is tricky and takes work to keep your mask and gloves from getting contaminated.
The virus is passed via the nose and mouth, so the goal of any protective gear is to block the virus from coming into contact with your face. Wearing gloves keeps your fingers away from the virus, but it can still be transmitted from the outer surface of the glove to your face. Wearing gloves, touching items in a store and then touching your face offers no protection.
Similarly, the surface of your gloves can transfer virus to such other surfaces as your cell phone or car keys. For example, if you push your grocery cart and then use your cell phone — all with your gloves on — your phone is now contaminated. If you later set your phone down, a family member who picks it up can potentially be infected if they then touch their face. You can even get infected from using your own phone if you have touched it with contaminated gloves and then touched your face.
To get the protective benefits of wearing gloves, it takes forward thinking. You must avoid touching your face or mask with your gloves on and also avoid touching items you would normally touch without gloves: things like your keys, phone, steering wheel, drink cup or bottle to name a few. Or if you do touch them, you must disinfect the objects and then wash your hands.
Masks are important for protecting those around you, but can also be problematic. The hygienic way to wear a mask is to put it on when your hands or gloves are clean and then not touch it again until you’ve washed your hands or removed your gloves. If you are wearing a mask in a store and then touch the mask after touching any surface in the store, you have potentially contaminated your mask. Similarly, if you pull the mask down to talk to someone, scratch or touch your face, and then pull it back up over your face, you have potentially transferred virus to your mask.
In this scenario, you are still limiting the spread of the virus to others but you’ve lost all protection for yourself.
It is possible to protect yourself from getting or spreading COVID-19 by wearing gloves. Here are some tips to help.
One of the easiest things to do is carry an extra set of gloves with you and keep hand sanitizer in your car. Put the mask and gloves on before getting out of your car to prevent accidentally touching something on your way inside the store. If you normally use your phone for a shopping list, don’t. Print your list and use only a paper list.
Keep all items, including your keys and phone in your pockets or bag. If you must use your phone, remove your gloves by peeling them back from the top and allowing them to turn inside out, like if you took off a sock from the top. This way, your clean hands touch only the clean inside of the gloves and stay uncontaminated. After using your phone with ungloved hands, put it in your pocket and retrieve a spare clean pair of gloves to keep shopping.
When getting ready to pay, carefully remove one glove without touching the skin on your hand with the other glove. Use the ungloved hand to retrieve your wallet and pay while using your gloved hand to handle everything in the store: the keypad, pen or stylus and all your bags. Use your bare hand to retrieve your keys, open your car door and trunk. Once your bags are loaded in the car, remove the glove from the other hand as described above.
Ideally, discard the gloves before getting into your car. Once inside the car, clean your hands with hand sanitizer and only then remove the mask. When you get home, put the clean spare gloves on and transfer the bags into the house and wash your hands again. Wash your hands a third time after putting away your purchases and throwing away the bags.
If you have accidentally touched your phone, keys or other object that you are bringing into your home, make sure to wipe it down with disinfecting wipes before putting it down and then wash your hands again.
It sounds like a lot of mental work — and it is — but is the only way gloves and a mask will actually protect you and those around you.
Ximena M. Garcia, M.D., is a retired physician who lives in Topeka.