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Doctors warn that disposable gloves can't protect from coronavirus

As the new coronavirus outbreak spreads, people are trying to protect themselves. Some are using disposable gloves, but doctors warn that it's not a solution.
Nationwide Lockdown as Virus Numbers Spiral
Doctors warn that disposable gloves should not be worn as a protective measure against the new coronavirus. Camilla Cerea/Getty Images

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By Kerry Breen

As the new coronavirus continues to spread, masks have become ubiquitous on city streets and public transportation. Now people are taking precautions a step further by sporting gloves. Are either actually necessary?

Experts are quick to say no, and warn that wearing masks or gloves isn't a solution. There are no recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to wear masks outside of health care settings, especially considering there may not be enough masks for all of the health care workers in the US.

And gloves are not recommended either: "This isn't something the general public would be wearing," said Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security. "I don't think they're going to do anything but give people a false sense of security, waste time and create more demand for something that's unnecessary, just like masks."

While disposable gloves are frequently worn in medical settings, they won't be as effective in day-to-day life.

"Latex gloves can rip very easily," said Adajla. "They're not designed for going out, running up stairs, doing things in daily life. They're not very durable when it comes to pumping gas or anything ... They're going to get holes. They're not meant for wearing during activities and daily living. Even as a physician, I have my gloves rip all the time."

Aline Holmes, a registered nurse based in New Jersey who has worked with hospitals and health care providers during infectious disease outbreaks, said that latex-free nitrile gloves are worn to care for patients in isolation, but since the coronavirus is spread through droplets, it's unlikely that gloves would do much to protect wearers.

"When you sneeze or cough, mucus and water droplets come out of your nose and mouth and travel," she explained. "Those droplets go about four or five feet and then drop to the ground. Wearing gloves isn't necessarily going to do anything ... Eventually, you'll take those gloves off."

Holmes added that researchers currently believe the virus can live on surfaces. Sneezing or coughing into gloves, she said, could create a new surface for the virus to live on, which people might contaminate themselves with when taking off gloves or touching surfaces.

Adajla pointed out that people will likely still touch their faces while wearing the gloves.

"They need to wash their hands and not touch their face," he said. "Many people are still going to touch their face with the glove, which is actually probably worse."

Both doctors said that the best thing to do is keep hands clean, preferably by washing them for at least 20 seconds at a time. Holmes said that hand sanitizer can help, but soap and water removes droplets more effectively. People should also avoid touching their faces, especially their eyes, noses and mouths.

Both Adajla and Holmes said that if people stock up on gloves, that could lead to shortages for health care professionals and those who actually need the supplies. Similar shortages already exist with masks, hand sanitizer and some cleaning products.

"The CDC is reporting that hospitals especially are having some difficulty getting masks and gloves," Holmes said. "A lot of those gloves and masks are made in China, and the state and federal government don't have enough stockpiled. If this goes on for several months, there is a possibility we could run out of gloves and masks."

Holmes emphasized trying to maintain social distancing, especially from those who appear to be ill, and avoiding touching surfaces in public as much as possible. If you're riding mass transit, she recommends using a tissue or paper towel to grab surfaces so you're not touching them directly.