Posted: Monday, April 27, 2020

The Hows and Whys of Mask Use

Recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) began recommending that the general public begin wearing face masks or face coverings as part of an ongoing effort to slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19). Previously, this had only been recommended for health care workers or for those who were immunocompromised already and were at a much higher risk of contracting the virus. And while many people have adopted the idea of wearing masks in public places, it is important to note that there are right and wrong ways to do so.

While the “stand six feet apart” element of social distancing remains key, the CDC says face masks and coverings are particularly recommended when you’re visiting places where staying six feet apart from others is difficult or virtually impossible, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. While COVID-19 technically isn’t airborne, it can spread through the air via droplets from things like sneezes, coughs or even simply by talking. Because people can have COVID-19 and not be symptomatic or even know they’re carrying it, they also can infect others, which is why covering our faces can help keep us safe.

Another goal of facial covering and mask use is to save the surgical and N95 masks used in health care settings for those who need them to care for individuals who have COVID-19 and need medical attention. “The idea behind an N95 mask is it has a filtering ability down to, and actually below, the size of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. So, the coronavirus is about 0.12 microns in diameter and N95 (masks) protect down to 0.1 microns, with 95% efficiency, which is where it gets its name,” Mayo Clinic’s Dr. Gregory Poland says. “We don't want the public to think that the recommendation is for medical masking. That would be detrimental to us as a society, health care providers and patients who are sick with the disease need those masks.”

For the general public, then, this means homemade cloth masks have become one of the more popular routes for facial protection. However, not all homemade masks are created equal. “There have been some studies looking at types of fabric,” Poland says. “For example, high-quality, woven tee shirts tend to be better than for example, scarves. Cotton towels that are thicker with tight weaves tend to be better. So, there are some materials that appear to be better than others in the few studies that have been done.”

Wearing a mask, too, comes with its own set of dos and don’ts. The CDC specifies that cloth face coverings should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, should be secured with ties or ear loops, should include multiple layers of fabric, should allow for breathing without restriction, and must be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape. Removing your mask also must be done with care, making sure you don’t touch your eyes, nose and mouth when removing it. Also, remember to wash your hands immediately after removing a mask. “You do yourself no favor if you wear a mask and then touch the mask, either to adjust it or take it off in the wrong way,” Poland says. “As medical professionals, we're taught how to put a mask on and how to take a mask off, but this would be unfamiliar to the public. You take it off through however you're holding it on your head. You do not touch the front of the mask. And then that mask needs to be washed before it would be used again. Just washing with soap and water in your laundry machine is quite satisfactory. You don't need to go to any extreme lengths.”

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