There has been a lot of conversation around whether or not you should wear a mask, whether it provides protection or what kind of mask to wear.
Face mask recommendations for the general public have changed over the course of several months, adding to the conversation and, understandably, confusion. ”There are many dedicated epidemiologists and scientists out there trying to figure out how we cure this disease and how we protect ourselves. So as time has gone on, we’ve learned much more about how to protect ourselves – one of those ways is wearing masks,” said Jennifer Wall Forrester, MD, UC Health Infectious Diseases specialist and associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.
As research continues around COVID-19, findings still support that 80% of infections are mild, 15% severe and 5% critical. Those with underlying medical conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes or obesity, are more likely to experience severe and, sometimes, life-threatening symptoms.
Even though the majority of infections are mild, testing is revealing more and more asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers (those who do not yet show any symptoms). As stay-at-home orders are being lifted, it’s imperative that we each do our part to continue to slow the spread as we re-enter public places. That can be done with the use of face masks.
Types of Masks
In general, there are three types of masks: surgical masks, respirators or cloth face coverings. However, they each have different purposes. They protect against different types of contaminants, and they each have different levels of protection in the downward (towards your chin) and backward (towards your ears) airflow, which can allow particles to enter and exit under the mask.
Surgical masks are disposable masks that create a barrier between the environment and the wearer’s mouth and nose. These are loose-fitting masks that don’t seal around the mouth and nose, which are meant to prevent liquid droplets from reaching the face. Airborne particles, such as tuberculosis or measles, though, can still pass through. This type of mask also forms a physical barrier so that infectious particles leaving the mouth do not go out into the environment.
Respirators, such as an N95 mask, are sealed around the mouth and nose, preventing many microscopic particles from entering the mask and into the mouth or nose. These types of masks are commonly used by industrial workers who are exposed to fine particles such as dust, fungi and smoke, and healthcare workers who treat patients with some infectious diseases, such as measles or tuberculosis.
It is not recommended that the general public use respirators because they need to be fitted professionally for the wearer.
Cloth face coverings, which can be created from bandanas, t-shirts, scarves and other cotton-blend materials, act similarly to surgical masks, protecting both the wearer and others around them.
When making your own mask, utilize a higher thread count fabric. Items like t-shirts have an average thread count of 40–50 threads per square inch, therefore their ability to capture infectious particles is less likely. Bedsheets, for instance, typically range from 200–800 threads, making them more effective in protecting yourself and others against infection.
It is imperative that cloth face coverings are washed thoroughly after each use as they can retain moisture and contamination.
Face shields or other eye protection are used in healthcare settings as a supplement to surgical masks or respirators to protect workers’ eyes from respiratory droplets, but are not recommended for the general public’s use.
In an effort to preserve medical equipment where it is needed (healthcare facilities), the general public should reserve surgical masks and respirators for healthcare professionals. In order to prevent the spread of COVID-19, it is important to use cloth face coverings when in public settings.
Who should wear a face mask?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is continuously studying the effects and spread of the novel coronavirus, and they have found that there are a significant number of asymptomatic carriers (those who do not show any symptoms), as well as pre-symptomatic carriers (those who eventually develop symptoms) who are transmitting the virus.
Coughing, sneezing and even speaking can lead to the spread of the virus, which is why it is strongly recommended that the general public utilize cloth face coverings in public areas, even when social distancing is being honored.
When should you wear a face mask?
“One of the most important ways to protect each other from COVID-19 is to maintain social distancing by staying 6 feet apart,” Dr. Forrester explained. “When that is not possible or not feasible, wearing a mask is definitely effective,” she continued. “It is difficult to predict what everyone else will do, especially in a crowded grocery store, sporting event or other group setting. Wearing a mask will alleviate the sometimes awkward moment when others come within that 6-foot space, and will help protect against infection.”
Cloth face coverings are by no means perfect. Their primary purpose is to prevent an infected person (whether they know it or not) from spreading the virus by talking, coughing or sneezing. “Wearing a mask protects both the person wearing the mask and the other people around that person,” Dr. Forrester said.
According to the CDC, when people talk, cough or sneeze, water droplets from the lining of the lungs are dispersed and can travel 6-26 feet, and land on or can be inhaled by others who are nearby.
Even if you aren’t considered high-risk and haven’t been experiencing any symptoms of the virus, the efforts to slow the spread must continue in order for life to get back to “normal.”
When in doubt, wear a cloth mask in high-traffic areas where social distancing is more difficult, especially indoor public places (e.g. grocery stores).
The more people follow the CDC’s recommendation on mask usage, the less infectious particles there will be in the environment, reducing the likelihood of others inhaling the pathogens. Thus, slowing the spread and preventing a second wave of infection.
What to do After You Take Your Mask Off
There are findings that suggest the virus can essentially cling to cloth masks, but only if it is not properly handled and cleaned. When you get home, be sure to:
- Wash your hands using soap and water (for at least 20 seconds).
- Grab the loops or ties around your ears. Do not touch the front of your mask or your face.
- Fold the mask in on itself so that the part of the mask that was exposed to the environment is now contained.
- Put your mask directly into the laundry for washing and dry it on a high-temperature setting. Or you can hand wash your cloth face-covering using hot, soapy water and scrubbing the mask for at least 20 seconds.
- Wash your hands using soap and water again.
As more research and data is gathered, the current masking recommendations may change again. We need to be flexible and willing to adapt to those changes to continue to do our part to fight this disease.
From state and city leadership to county health commissioners, heads of hospitals, healthcare workers and first responders, everyone is banding together to make sure our community stays safe and healthy. Now, it’s time for our families, friends, neighbors and co-workers to do the same, especially if it’s as simple as wearing a mask.