5 Common COVID-19 Mistakes People Make Unknowingly

Despite all the coverage, we know less than we think we do.

Posted May 27, 2020

We all think we are doing a great job protecting ourselves and our family and friends from COVID-19, yet, here are 5 common mistakes people make without being aware of it.

1. Mistakes in wearing face masks. When going for a walk or shopping, if you pay attention to the way people wear their face mask you will see that:

  • Some people’s face mask only covers their mouth but not their nose. (It should cover both.)
  • Some people use surgical face masks but don’t know that there is a little metal part at the top of the mask that needs to be pinched to mold the top of their nose and prevent the mask from falling (the mask should sit high and tight on the nose).
  • Because some people’s face masks keeps falling off their nose, they frequently touch the front of the mask (contaminated area) with their fingers (supposed to stay clean) to readjust it and then they touch clean things with their fingers. Instead, if you need to readjust your mask, touch the elastic around your ears and if you need to touch the front of your mask, disinfect your fingers right afterward. 
  • People don’t wear face masks altogether: This weekend, my husband and I went on walk along Venice Beach’s strand (California), and 95% of people were not wearing any face mask and the strand was so crowded that it was impossible to maintain 6 feet of safe distancing. What’s more, there was a drum circle on the beach with at least 100 people (when 10 is the official limit) with no physical distancing and no masks. 

The solution: Wear your face mask over your nose and mouth, pinch the little metal piece around your nose to make it fit tightly, don’t touch the front of your mask even if it bothers you and to take your mask off, grab the elastic around your ears.

2. Mistakes in wearing gloves. In shops, when you see employees wear gloves, you assume that you are protected, right? Well, you might not be as protected as you think. 

The other day, I went to the local pharmacy and I loved the fact that the pharmacy employee was wearing a face mask and gloves. Yet, when I paid attention to what the employee touched with her gloves, I was shocked. The pharmacy employee took my insurance card with her hands covered by gloves, took my money, gave me cash back (possibly contaminated), readjusted the front of her mask (possibly contaminated) around her nose, gave me my medication (supposed to be clean), took the insurance card of the next customer, gave a pen (possibly contaminated) to the next customer then took the pen back (possibly even more contaminated), all this with the same gloves without changing gloves or disinfecting her gloves. As I had seen enough, I left.  

So, if you assume that because an employee is wearing gloves, what is given to you is germ-free, you are probably wrong.  Gloves employees wear can be as contaminated as if the employees had no gloves. The solution: if you wear gloves and touch possibly contaminated items, use a hydro-alcoholic gel to disinfect your gloves before touching clean items. 

3. Mistake assuming that wearing a face mask eliminates the need for physical distancing. Most face masks used by the public are not airtight, so air leaks in and out and droplets carrying viruses can go in and out through the openings.  

Seongman Bae, MD, and colleagues from South Korea published a study in Annals of Internal Medicine (April 2020) showing that if four people cough wearing a surgical or homemade face mask (other than a N95 mask which is airtight), viruses can still be found in the air around them and on the outer layer of the face mask. So physical distancing, especially in a closed environment, needs to be practiced in addition to wearing a face mask.

Because there are still new infections happening every day, William Haseltine, former Harvard School professor, founder of the university’s cancer and HIV/AIDS research departments, and Chair and President of ACCESS Health International, told Alessandra Galloni of Reuters in a May 20 video interview: "The only safe assumption as long as there is one case of COVID-19 in your community or near your community, is that you need to consider that everybody you meet is infected with COVID-19.”  

How likely are we of being infected in a closed space? Haseltine mentions that our risk of being infected by COVID-19 in an enclosed space increases the more time we spend there, the more people who are in the room, the closer the people are to us even if they wear a facemask and the more people who are in the room without a mask. He has an equation to calculate our probability of getting infected:

Probability of infection = (time/distance) x (number of people) x (number of people with no mask) 

Enclosed spaces are restaurants, stores, theaters, elevators, public transport vehicles, private living rooms, or kitchens, among others. 

4. Mistake assuming that no COVID-19 can spread during religious gatherings. Religious gatherings, especially when they are indoors, follow Haseltine’s probability of infection explained above. Not only do people need to wear masks and be physically distant from each other, they need to be even more distant from each other if they sing aloud. 

Sima Asadi and colleagues from UC Davis write in Nature (2019) that the rate of particle emission during human speech increases with people’s loudness of voice and that a small fraction of individuals consistently release “an order of magnitude more particles than their peers.” So, we can assume that loud singing in a group setting will warrant a physical distance longer than 6 feet (probably at least 13 feet and possibly more). 

5. Mistake assuming the worst of COVID-19 is over in the United States and we don’t need to worry any more. We have roughly the same number of new infections as we had in March when we closed the country. Some states (Wisconsin, North Carolina, and Maine among others) are even seeing an increase of new infections and yet, we are reopening the country. So, the risk of a second wave this summer and/or fall is high, and we need to continue being extremely cautious.

So, what should we do? Haseltine mentions that we shouldn’t count on having an effective vaccine soon, especially if we want the vaccine to protect people that are older than 60. Rather, we should manage all our new COVID-19 cases: Test people, identify people who is infected, identify their contacts, and strictly isolate and establish a controlled quarantine for the people who are COVID-19 positive and their contacts.

In addition, let’s wear masks and gloves the right way and practice physical distancing.

Oh, and here’s one last mistake that many are making: assuming that we now know all of the mistakes that are possible when coping with COVID-19.  The crafty virus continually surprises us, and the only thing that would be surprising would be if there were no more surprises.