Law enforcement officers and first responders have always had to be vigilant about maintaining strong infection prevention measures. Highly infectious diseases like the flu, HIV, C. diff, MRSA, Hepatitis, and others have always posed a risk for them. Now, with widespread cases of COVID-19, health and safety measures for first responders are more important than ever.
COVID-19 is thought to be spread primarily by infected droplets expelled while breathing, talking, coughing, laughing, etc. Consequentially, it is not surprising that crowded spaces are conducive to readily spreading the illness. Hence, wearing properly fitting masks and perhaps eye protection can prevent infection and stop those droplets from entering the body.
However, few officers understand that they can also easily infect themselves. Whether or not they wear a mask and eye protection, simply by innocently touching an infected surface and then touching their mouth, nose, or eyes, they can introduce the infection directly into their body.
If you are a law enforcement officer or a first responder, think about your last call for service. Think about everything you touched, from the moment you left your vehicle to the moment you returned to it — every touch and every contact. Locard’s exchange principle, which states that whenever two objects come in contact, a transfer of material occurs, applies here as well as with forensic evidence.
Properly Use (and Disposal of) Masks to Prevent Infection
It’s critical for first responders to know how to use their masks properly, how to care for them and replace them when needed. Here are some best practices for using masks:
- Wear a mask that fits tightly against your face. Keep extra masks with you and immediately replace dirty or damp ones.
- Handle all types of worn masks as if they are contaminated. Clean your hands after removing any mask and when reusing a cloth mask. Do not reuse paper masks.
- When removing the mask grab it by the ear loops or ties and fold the mask so the inside area directly touching your face is facing out. When reusing your cloth mask, always wear it with the same side facing out. Temporarily store your cloth mask in a dry, clean paper bag. Be sure to wash your hands after touching any used mask.
- See the CDC’s guidance on how to store and wash masks.
- Have a re-sealable plastic bag to store wet or dirty cloth masks. Cloth masks should be washed when dirty, or daily, in your regular laundry using regular detergent and settings.
- Paper masks are not meant to be reused or washed and should be replaced when they become moist from breath, snow, rain, sweat, etc. (Learn more about paper masks.)
- Bandanas and gaiters are not recommended as masks because the fabric weave is too open to be effective.
Wear Other PPE and Know How to Disinfect Properly
In addition to masks, officers should consider wearing other protective personal equipment (PPE), which may include a clear plastic face shield, gloves, or perhaps even a gown. Know how to contain and isolate any PPE that may be infected to reduce chances of infecting yourself or others. For example, here is a quick video about how to safely remove dirty disposable gloves.
It’s also important to be diligent about disinfecting and cleaning surfaces that may be contaminated. Common surfaces prone to harbor infection include doorknobs and handles, light switches, phones, tablets, keyboards, steering wheels, keys, faucets, handcuffs, etc. Clean these often and use a barrier, such as a paper towel, to turn off the faucet or light switch.
Spray or wipe down your work area or the interior of your vehicle with a disinfectant at the beginning and end of your shift, and as needed. While it is not technically possible to kill a virus (as they are not alive), this process helps to remove viruses and kills other bacteria in the process. Make sure to wash your hands afterward.
Here are other tips to help officers protect themselves from infection:
- Don’t touch food or eat with your hands. Pick up those french fries with a fork. Eat a sandwich that is wrapped in a napkin or similar clean barrier. Pick up that Five Guys or In-N-Out burger in its wrapper and keep it there when eating.
- Consider keeping a supply of inexpensive pens. Provide them to others for completing forms or statements.
- Wash your hands thoroughly with soap and running water at every opportunity. Here is a quick video on how to effectively wash your hands.
- Use hand sanitizer for when a sink and running water are not available.
- Maintain good personal oral care at least twice daily. Cover your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. Blow your nose into disposable tissues several times a day. Wash your hands afterward.
- Keep up with recommended vaccines for adults. This includes the COVID-19 vaccinations.
- Share this information with others and encourage fellow officers to take these steps to protect themselves.
These guidelines are more important than ever. Viruses are able to mutate and change, which is happening with the current COVID-19 virus resulting in several varieties quickly spreading throughout the United States. Preliminary reports indicate these mutations have enhanced the ability of the virus to spread even more easily than the original strain.
Fortunately, current studies indicate that COVID-19 vaccines are effective against the recent mutated virus varieties. However, it is still essential to pay attention to infection precautions such as physical distancing, proper handling and use of masks, hand washing, etc. to protect ourselves, families, and communities.
Please be careful out there! We need each of us to help protect us all.
About the Authors:
Dr. Barbara Duffy is an online university educator with decades of experience improving the delivery of healthcare. She designs and instructs online graduate and undergraduate classes for various universities and international adult learners. As an RN, Risk Manager, and certified professional in healthcare quality her work includes accreditation, regulatory compliance, and improvement within healthcare, academia, and the community.
Dr. Chuck Russo is the Program Director of Criminal Justice at American Military University (AMU). He began his career in law enforcement in 1987 in Central Florida and was involved all areas of patrol, training, special operations and investigations before retiring from law enforcement in 2013. Dr. Russo continues to design and instruct courses, as well as act as a consultant for education, government and industry throughout the world. His recent research and presentations focus on emerging technology and law enforcement applications, post-traumatic stress, nongovernment intelligence actors, and online learning.