UNC Health Care
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How to Protect Yourself if You Must Leave Your Home

Since the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic seized communities around the country, most states have implemented mandatory stay-at-home orders and other social distancing measures, such as closing schools and nonessential businesses to help stop the spread of the virus.

While remaining at home as much as possible is required, some people don’t always have that option. Essential workers across the United States still have to show up to work every day. These include people in the healthcare and food supply industries, as well as law enforcement officers, utility and sanitation workers, and others who keep communities running. Nearly every household will need to send a member out for food or supplies at some point.

Whether you’re an essential worker or you need to run out to get essentials, what safety precautions should you take?

1. Wear a mask.

Because many people with COVID-19 never experience symptoms, and those who will eventually develop symptoms are contagious before they get sick, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends wearing a cloth face covering in public settings such as the grocery store.

“Wear a cloth mask or bandana, because we are learning that droplets in the air can transmit coronavirus more than we thought before,” says UNC Health family medicine physician Sarah Ruff, MD.

Do not use a surgical or N95 mask.

“We’re trying to save those for healthcare professionals, and a cloth mask is fine when you have to run to the grocery store,” Dr. Ruff says.

2. Stay 6 feet away from others.

Practice vigilant hand hygiene and remain at least 6 feet away from other people to slow the spread of the virus.

“Six feet is about two grocery carts’ length away, so try to remember that,” Dr. Ruff says.

To help people comply with this recommendation, many stores are limiting the number of shoppers who can be in the store at one time.

“And they’re starting to put tape 6 feet apart in the (checkout) lines so people can visualize how far apart 6 feet is and keep their distance,” Dr. Ruff says.

As soon as you get back inside your car, use hand sanitizer, and then wash your hands thoroughly when you get home.

“Make sure not to touch your face,” Dr. Ruff says.

3. Limit how often you leave home.

Pick one person in your household to run all errands, and try to restrict the number of times that person goes.

“Really try to limit the number of times you go to every one or two weeks, and don’t have everybody go,” Dr. Ruff says.

She also says to get creative with essential errands. For example, if you have to drop off a package to be mailed, call ahead and let them know you will be dropping off a package outside the door.

“Be very mindful of workers (in stores) and find ways to help limit your interaction even when you do have to go out,” Dr. Ruff says.

Essential really means essential. It does not mean cruising the aisles of your favorite superstore or home improvement store because you need to get out of the house, she says.

4. Adhere to workplace safety measures.

If you are required to leave your home for work, be sure to comply with the safety measures of your workplace. For example, Dr. Ruff says her practice requires all employees to wear masks and is spacing out its nurses’ and doctors’ stations.

“We’re also discussing alternating when providers come in so we limit the number of people who are in the clinic at one time,” Dr. Ruff says. “We’re limiting the number of people who come in contact with each other and our patients at any given time.”


For the latest information on COVID-19, visit the CDC website and the UNC Health COVID-19 Resources page, and follow UNC Health on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube.