Staying informed about COVID-19 has always been paramount and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending everyone cover their mouth and nose with a protective face mask. We know that if we are sick—fever, cough, fatigue—that we should quarantine ourselves to prevent the spread of the virus.
But recent studies have shown that a significant number of individuals with COVID-19 are asymptomatic—meaning they lack symptoms. Add to that, those who do go on to develop symptoms, can pass it to others before they even begin to show symptoms—on average 5 days from the time you are infected to symptom onset.
Thus, the purpose of the public wearing a mask is that the wearer is protecting others and that they are not unknowingly spreading the virus. In some ways, it has become an emblem or a badge of pride in the fight against COVID-19. However, figuring out how and when and what to wear can be challenging, and at times confusing.
Who should wear masks?
CDC and many health experts recommend wearing a mask anytime you leave home including grocery stores, pharmacies and areas of significant community-based transmission. At the same time, you should always maintain all social distancing and handwashing measures, because the mask is to protect others—to prevent the wearer of the mask from unknowingly infecting others. Don’t get an artificial sense of security by wearing a facemask – stay vigilant!
Exceptions to the mask include children under age 2, those who have trouble breathing, or are unable to remove the mask without assistance.
Medical Grade Masks: Surgical masks and N-95 respirators need to be left for our army of healthcare workers battling COVID-19 on the frontlines. It’s critical given hospitals across the nation are experiencing personal protection equipment (PPE) shortages. Too, alone they cannot prevent you from getting infected. That is why frontline workers wear a barrage of PPE, from eye shields to hoods to gowns to gloves to shoe coverings, and depend on negative pressure rooms to help clear virus suspended as respiratory droplets. They undergo extensive protocol to put on and remove PPE so as not to get infected and have been fitted for their masks.
Take for example firefighters. In addition to masks, they are also properly fitted into uniforms and helmets and trained to don and doff their equipment and other safety protocol. A mask alone cannot protect them from the smoke and flames of a fire.
Not all facemasks are created equal. Again, cloth face masks are being recommended to prevent the wearer of the mask from spreading virus to others. While many have acquired disposable face masks, remember, they are just that—disposable. They quickly accumulate virus and other undesirable germs on the outside which is smack-dab near your body’s entry points, the eyes, nose and mouth. Another way to think about it is that, we don’t re-use coffee filters, paper towels, toilet paper, or tissue.
- Research reports best material is one with a thick, tight weave, which blocks more viral particles from passing through.
- Some experts recommend including a filter in the middle of the fabric to help ensure air particles are filtered effectively while the fabric ensures you are not breathing in the filter materials. (Two layers of an allergy-reduction HVAC filter or four layers of high-thread count pillowcases)
- Placing HEPA and polypropylene filters between two pieces of cloth fabric helps avoid inhaling any harmful fibers. (Experts note HEPA vacuum bags made of polypropylene are the “gold standard.” Avoid all filters made of fiberglass.)
Be sure your face coverings:
- Allow you to breathe without restriction
- Fit snugly, comfortably and are not fidgety, requiring you to constantly fidget with it, touching your face in the process
- Cover your nose and mouth. Remember that COVID-19 is spread by your nose and mouth via coughing, sneezing, and perhaps even singing or laughing and that it enters your body via your eyes, nose and mouth.
- Secure with ties/ear loops, or ties at the back of your head
- Can be cleaned/laundered and dried without damage or change to shape/integrity. Reusing a mask without proper cleaning, can expose you to breathing droplets the mask captured last time. You can hand wash or throw them in the laundry and hang dry or put in the dryer. It’s a good idea to have more than one so that you always have a spare ready.
- Aren’t touched on the side in contact with your face (if hands are contaminated and area touched –that’s delivering COVID directly).
- Remove carefully, without touching eyes/nose/mouth—washing hands before and after removing it
Again, the goal of wearing a mask is to prevent the wearer of the mask from spreading virus via respiratory droplets that can linger in the air (airborne), and, hence, contaminate others. It does not mean you are suddenly invincible or Superman and are faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings at a single bound. Remember kryptonite? That includes your eyes through which virus can enter the body, and the sides of the mask—remember they are not fitted seals to your face.
Additionally, wearing a mask does not mean you can replace good hygiene and social distancing—which are our number one and most effective weapon against COVID-19. At this time there is no proven medication, antiviral treatment, or vaccine. Today, masks are part of our infection control strategy – stay vigilant as we continue to join together to shield ourselves and communities.
Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures.
She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.