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Lessons Learned About Pre-stocking Personal Protection Equipment

The world has changed.

2020 started like any other year, with fireworks lighting up the night and champagne flowing when the clock struck midnight on New Year’s Eve. A couple months passed as “normal” then, virtually all hell broke loose.

The COVID-19 pandemic began as chattering in the news about an unknown virus spreading through Wuhan, China. When the first case hit the west coast of the United States, people started to take notice. As it spread throughout the states, full panic mode began to set in.

To battle this cureless enemy, people had no choice but to both prevent this killer from entering their own bodies and, if they were unfortunate enough to acquire it, keep the virus confined to their own bodies and away from others.

Plexiglas body shields are used in businesses during a pandemic to help prevent the spread of the virus. (Getty photo)

We were told that PPE (personal protection equipment) was part of the solution—in the form of face masks and shields, gloves and other items specifically intended to curb the spread, help reduce and, optimistically, attempt to eliminate the virus.

Now, we’re nearly half a year into this pandemic (as of this writing), and COVID-19 is still attacking, still hovering over the non-infected and waiting for an opening.

It’s time now to examine or, for some, reexamine a person’s PPE options, what helps, what doesn’t and, ultimately, what a person can continue to do to stay informed and get one step ahead of this invisible, silent killer, as well as any others lurking in the shadows.

Two key components of pandemic supplies: face masks and hand sanitizer. (Getty photo)

Caught by Surprise

One thing is certain about the COVID-19 pandemic: Most people throughout the world, as well as the governments of their respective countries, were taken entirely by surprise. Yes, the situation was noticed in Wuhan, China, and reported throughout the world, but the majority of people never thought it could possibly become the problem it now is in the United States.

Many individuals who prep for major emergencies might not have imagined a pandemic to be high on their list of probable scenarios. Whether they did or not, in many cases, some pandemic-related supplies are often stocked—but usually not to the level needed to outlast this intense and unrelenting virus.

There are many grades, thicknesses and quality levels of disposable exam gloves. Do some research and try different styles before you invest in a significant quantity. (Getty photo)

On a larger, national scale, entire countries were also unprepared for such an onslaught. Supplies—very quickly—were in short supply in hospitals, urgent care centers and the supply chain. Face masks, face shields and gloves were being used in quantities that were never anticipated. In addition, just about the entire world was facing the same crisis, albeit on different scales and timelines, depending on the outbreak levels in each of the countries. Lack of international deliveries, production stoppages at manufacturing plants and quarantining of workers all added to the shortage of critical supplies.

Chaos During the Chaos

As the pandemic raged on, entire U.S. states were put on lockdown. Also at this time, the controversy surrounding the effectiveness of face mask use as protection against the virus was growing and adding anxiety to an already stressful situation. However, most people finally decided that masks were a means to slow the spread. At this point, more chaos erupted within an already chaotic situation.

The fight was on to find face masks, both on an individual and at the commercial level. Because supplies were running low in the medical arena, people were asked not to wear one of the most-protective masks—the N95—and instead use surgical face shields, bandannas, cloth masks or even a cotton T-shirt if nothing else was available.

It’s best to stock up on PPE supplies prior to an outbreak, or you’ll be reading this sign if you wait to buy PPE after an emergency begins. (Getty photo)

This created a snowball effect: People inundated local and online stores and bought nearly any piece of fabric or string and nearly any type of sewing supply so they could make their own masks. Many folks, individually or as part of a group, went into production at home to try to help fill the need.

Again, from a survival point of view, many emergency bags and pre-packed kits offer masks inside. However, unless you pack your own and know the vast differences in the protection they provide, the odds are that you packed those that are useful against dust particles and not micron-level viruses and their droplet transporters.

Key Essentials

As of this writing, the virus is still rampant throughout the world. The worse the situation, the more masks are considered must-wear PPE.

But what’s needed, and what else should be part of your pandemic-specific kit? If we’re to learn from our experiences, then, yes, you need a kit—and you need to make it sooner rather than later. Here are some great additions.

Face Coverings. This one’s a no-brainer. However, some are much better than others: the N95 mask (which filters at least 95 percent of airborne particles but isn’t resistant to oil); the N99 (which filters at least 99 percent of airborne particles but isn’t resistant to oil); the N100 (this one filters at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles but isn’t resistant to oil); and the P100 (it filters at least 99.97 percent of airborne particles—and is strongly resistant to oil). However, if supplies are limited now as you create a future pandemic kit, use surgical, FDA-approved masks and stock them plentifully. More is better, because, just as with COVID-19, no one knows when a pandemic will simply “go away.”

Regular unscented bleach is an effective way to sanitize hard surfaces. Care must be taken when working with bleach, including limiting exposure to skin and avoiding contact with eyes. Be very careful about how and where bleach is stored. (Photo by Michael D’Angona)

Gloves. Keeping your hands germ free is a necessity. According to a 2015 Australian university study, students in the study group touched their faces an average of 23 times per hour. Of those touches, 44 percent (10 touches) involved mucous membranes—a prime avenue of entry for a virus.

It’s natural to touch your face without thinking about it. If your hands are contaminated with the virus, you could very well become infected. Conversely, if you have the virus, you could easily pass it to others this way. Gloves protect your hands and remind you not to touch your face, thus offering you a quick and easy way to protect yourself when constant hand-washing is not an option. Best of all, they’re relatively inexpensive, available in various sizes and materials, and are useful in other survival medical, hygiene, food preparation and health situations.

With countries on lockdown, mask production and delivery were greatly reduced, thus extending out of-stock problems. (Getty photo)

Face Shields. Gaps in where your mask touches your face can let viral droplets through and into your sinus cavities. A clear face shield doesn’t impede vision and protects from particles and water vapor reaching not only your nose or mouth, but also your eyes. Eyes provide a “back door” that viruses can also use to infect the body. Shields also remove the issue of adequate airflow for the user (a common complaint with face masks).

Hand Sanitizer. Seventy percent ethyl alcohol or higher is the way to go. Beware of some cheaper sanitizer varieties that look like a great deal; in reality, they either offer less ethyl alcohol or are composed of chemicals that don’t fight viruses as well. In addition, some have ingredients that can actually be harmful when applied. These impostors contain methanol (wood alcohol). This substance can be toxic if absorbed through the skin or accidentally ingested.

Exam gloves are available in a wide range of materials, thicknesses and sizes. Some people are allergic to latex gloves. Sample several types before you invest in a significant quantity.

Bleach. What can be said about bleach? It’s easy enough: Bleach kills. With a solution of 1/3 cup of unscented bleach per gallon of water, you can sanitize almost all hard surfaces in your home. Letting this solution air-dry will all but guarantee that viruses, bacteria, molds and mildew will be killed. Just be sure to never mix bleach with ammonia or other chemicals and always use in a well-ventilated area.

Virus-Killing Wipes. Although relatively pricier than bleach, disinfectant wipes are ideal for cleaning wallets, credit cards, keys, electronic devices and other items that can be harmed by sprayed or liquid applications. Just grab a wipe, clean your personal items, and discard the wipe. Wipes can also be kept and used in your vehicle without creating a mess or danger of spilling.

The “trifecta” for waging war on viruses: virus-killing wipes, bleach and disinfectant spray. (Photo by Michael D’Angona)

Alcohol. Rubbing alcohol, like sanitizer, should have a minimum of 70 percent concentration of isopropyl alcohol to be effective against viruses. This item, usually plentiful and inexpensive during normal times, became hard to find when the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

Hand Soap. Hand soap, when used with warm or hot water, effectively breaks down the foundation of viruses. It either kills them outright or washes them off your hands, along with dirt, bacteria and grease.

Lessons Learned

Looking back now, there are lessons that can be learned from the beginning of this ongoing pandemic. Recalling these lessons enables you to plan ahead for your physical needs, as well as prepare mentally for the uncertainty, fear and anxiety associated with such a life-changing event.

One such lesson concerning the supplies needed to battle a pandemic is that you can never have too much of any given item. Yes, supplies are not infinite, nor can most people purchase or store pallet loads of such goods. If you consider what you had on hand pre-COVID-19 compared to what you now know you needed, this is a reasonable plan.

If there aren’t enough PPE supplies for healthcare workers, you’ll most likely come up short too. (Getty photo)

Because the spread of a virus can extend quickly from a town to a county to a state—and then a country and beyond—supplies would be in demand by essentially everyone in the loop, especially those who had no provisions at the start. We’ve witnessed the decimation of inventories across the entire supply chain and, as with COVID-19, supplies made in other countries might not be able to be produced or shipped to our country in time of need.

Think in terms of months and years, rather than days and weeks, as you would for food and water preps. If a pandemic passes through quickly, no harm done. But if it lingers and surges numerous times, you’ll have enough PPE to ride out the storm.

Remember: Healthcare professionals get first priority for PPE supplies, so pre-planning to stock up early is a must. (Getty photo)

The mental toll of any emergency is high, but a pandemic can increase that to even higher levels. Without a tangible obstacle to battle, such as an earthquake, hurricane, neighborhood riot or economic collapse, a pandemic can put incredible stress on an individual or family. Not knowing who might be infected or what objects or surfaces might be a home to the virus is stressful enough, but the possibility of encounters with asymptomatic carriers takes the threat level up even higher.

Strength of mind, optimism and careful planning can take some of the edge off your mental battle with the virus. One of the very few positives of the COVID-19 pandemic is that it not only revealed flaws in planning on personal, institutional and government levels, it also taught us important lessons to use against similar future events.

Face coverings must be worn by those in close proximity to others and will always be in high demand during a pandemic. (Getty photo)

Trust in Yourself

There’s one important lesson that should be learned above all and followed during and after a pandemic: After planning and preparing to the best of your ability, use common sense and trust yourself, your preparations and your own internal voice. As we’ve seen, when many organizations are involved in handling an emergency, conflicting messages and advice will run rampant, with mistrust and panic the likely results.

You need to do what you can to be prepared for anything, including a full-fledged pandemic. It’s far better to err on the side of caution than to be trapped without the gear and supplies you need to battle a relentless and invisible killer.

Purell, one of the leaders of the hand sanitizer industry, was hard pressed to produce enough product for a worldwide epidemic. (Getty photo)

An N95 mask can offer protection from infection during a pandemic. As the name implies, its particle-filtering efficiency under normal circumstances is 95 percent. (Photo by Michael D’Angona)

Home Brews

When you can’t find all the PPE items you need to fight an invisible killer, it’s time to concoct your own virus-killing creations.

Homemade Hand Sanitizer

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup 70 percent ethyl alcohol
  • 1/3 cup aloe vera gel
  • Fragrance (optional)

Combine the alcohol with aloe gel and gently mix. If desired, add essential oils for a pleasant fragrance. When using alcohol with a higher percentage (70 to 90 percent), add water to slightly dilute the solution, and you’re ready to fight back against most viruses.

Bleach-Based Disinfectant

Ingredients

  • 1/3 cup household bleach (sodium hypochlorite), unscented
  • 1 gallon water

Add the bleach to the water and gently mix. That’s it. You’re all set to disinfect most hard household surfaces. Let surfaces air dry for the best results.

Disinfectant Wipes

Ingredients

  • 7 cups isopropyl alcohol (91 percent)
  • 3 cups water
  • Durable paper towels or cloths
  • Airtight storage container

Wear gloves for safety. Then, mix 7 cups of alcohol with 3 cups of water for the proper dilution. If you’re using 70 percent alcohol, no dilution in water is needed. Next, place the paper towels or cloth pieces into the airtight container. Add your alcohol solution until the “wipes” are completely submerged. Close the lid and wait five to 10 minutes until they’re completely saturated. Keep them sealed in a cool, dark location to prevent alcohol evaporation.

Gloves With the Right Fit

Gloves are an important part of an overall PPE plan. However, not all gloves are equal—nor are they suitable for all tasks and situations.

Below are some “gripping” facts about a variety of gloves useful during a pandemic or for any circumstance for which you need a hands-off approach. Note that there are multiple materials, grades, thicknesses and quality levels available when buying these gloves. Do some research before investing significant sums in this PPE essential.

Vinyl. Vinyl’s a great choice for those who have latex allergies. These gloves can be used for both medical and all-around cleaning uses and are affordable for most people. Meant for single-use applications, just use and discard vinyl gloves to prevent cross-contamination and make any cleanup fast and easy.

Polypropylene. These extremely thin and loose-fitting gloves are intended for one-use applications. They won’t hold up to strenuous use, because they rip and tear easily. However, they’re extremely low-priced and are generally packaged in 500 to 1,000 gloves per box, so it’s easy to keep a lot of these gloves on hand.

Latex. Latex is the glove-of-choice for most medical applications. They stretch to the contour of a person’s hand, unlike many synthetic varieties. They’re also created from natural rubber material, so they’re “earth friendly.” The downside is that a small percentage of people are allergic to latex, so these gloves would be off limits for them.

Nitrile. These gloves mimic the properties of latex but without the allergy concerns for some people. They’re made from synthetic rubber that offers more puncture resistance than traditional latex and can be used for multiple tasks, such as medical, cleaning and hazardous materials handling.

Hybrid. A newer design, hybrid gloves are PVC-free, latex-free, cornstarch allergen-free and FDA approved for use with food and food preparation. They’re also 100 percent recyclable, so they reduce environmental and landfill impacts. They slide on easily, even when hands are wet.

 

Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the November, 2020 print issue of American Survival Guide.

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