In this age of COVID-19, public health has gone from a niche topic to a nightly news mainstay. All of a sudden, people everywhere have to learn about virus transmission and what measures to take to protect themselves and each other from the disease.

Doctor looking into microscope

Understandably, this can be a bit of a shock. People who have never had to think much about face masks and bodily fluids before are now following new recommendations that change as the pandemic unfolds. To get a basic understanding of pathogen prevention, many people are looking to some safety guidelines that have been around for decades: universal precautions.

Don’t worry if you don’t know what this term means. I’ll walk you through what universal precautions are and why they’re relevant during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Bit of Universal Precautions Training

What are universal precautions? Before I go any further, let me make sure you have a good handle on the basics of these safety guidelines.

Universal precautions came about as an official way to recommend safety measures when working with people who might be infected with a dangerous disease. Under these precautions, workers started to treat all relevant fluids as if they were contaminated, even if no tests had been run yet. Universal precautions include equipment, like masks and gloves, as well as proper safety procedures, like regular decontamination.

Official organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (the CDC) and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) are some of the main authorities on universal precautions and how they’re used today.

Universal Precautions in the Age of COVID-19

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, universal precautions were mostly geared toward professionals in various fields that dealt with bodily fluids. These included healthcare workers, first responders, and tattooists. People who weren’t part of those fields didn’t feel a strong need to learn about special protections against disease transmission.

These days, though, everything has changed. As I’ll explain in the next section, universal precautions are focused on blood and specific fluids, like semen. But during this pandemic, even the saliva and nasal fluid from a sneeze can be a serious risk.

This widens the number of professions who need to learn about pathogen safety precautions. If I had to list the fields where people might expect to come into contact with human blood on a regular basis, I would run out at some point. But the fields where someone might sneeze or cough are, well, pretty much any field.

You don’t even need to work a job to be at risk of COVID-19 transmission by these fluids. For this reason, universal precautions have gone from a work-based set of guidelines to general guidelines for anyone and everyone.

Universal vs. Standard Precautions

The creation of universal precautions marked a big change in health precautions at the workplace, but people didn’t stop there. Since the establishment of universal precautions, new versions have popped up, including standard precautions, transmission-based precautions, droplet precautions, and airborne precautions.

All of these guidelines build on the foundation of universal precautions to bring together special recommendations for different situations. For example, standard precautions are more comprehensive than universal precautions, and transmission-based precautions are an additional measure on top of those. For people new to the concept, though, universal precautions are a good place to start.

Masks and Droplet Transmission

Personal protective equipment (PPE) is an extremely important aspect of universal precautions. And this equipment isn’t just to make people feel clean. Each piece of PPE is specially designed to protect against different types of disease transmission.

When it comes to COVID-19, one of the most visible pieces of PPE is the face mask. These protect against droplet transmission of the virus. If someone who has COVID-19 sneezes or coughs in public, a face mask can keep those droplets of fluid from reaching other people.

Universal precautions have gotten some updates during the pandemic. For example, experts are recommending that people stay at least six feet apart from each other whenever possible. You might not think a sneeze would go that far, but those tiny droplets do indeed reach those distances when proper PPE isn’t used.

Together, mask use and social distancing provide multiple layers of protection. If one of those fails, the other can act as a second barrier to infection.

Gloves and Contact Transmission

Another important example of PPE is the use of gloves to provide a clean, waterproof layer between a person and a potentially contaminated fluid. Like most things about universal precautions, these have gone from a profession-specific recommendation to a recommendation for any everyday person.

One of the ways the coronavirus can spread is through person-to-person contact. Shaking someone’s hand or handing someone an object can lead to contact transmission of the virus. Gloves protect against this by providing a barrier—and they can also protect against virus transmission through surfaces like doorknobs.

One thing to keep in mind here is that gloves are meant to be used for specific purposes. If someone were to wear a pair of gloves all day, and even occasionally touch their face with those gloves, they would not be protecting themself very well from the coronavirus. People should replace gloves for new tasks.

And whether or not people use gloves, they should be washing their hands frequently with soap and warm water. Even if they used gloves, hand washing is an easy additional step that provides another layer of protection in case anything went wrong with the glove protocol.

Be Part of the Solution!

These are just a few of the ways universal precautions can give people guidance in preventing the spread of the coronavirus. During this pandemic, every person has a crucial role in preventing virus transmission, whether or not they work in a specialized field. This makes the current moment different from other times in public health history. Universal precautions have become something everyone is called to learn and practice.

Not everyone has all the proper equipment to follow these safety recommendations exactly, but they can do their best to make smart choices. If you’ve come across difficulties in trying to follow pandemic precautions, tell me your story in the comments below!