With potential vaccines on the horizon, public health experts such as Dr. Anthony Fauci have urged Americans to continue taking measures to protect themselves and others from the spread of COVID-19. One of the best and simplest ways to do this is by wearing a mask. Here in Massachusetts, Governor Charlie Baker recently issued an order requiring the use of face masks at all times while in public, outdoors as well as indoors, and regardless of social distancing efforts.
At Atrius Health, as an additional safety and infection control measure, our greeters are now providing a complimentary new surgical mask to all patients and essential visitors when entering our practice locations. Patients and essential visitors will be requested to practice hand hygiene using provided hand sanitizer, remove their personal mask or face covering, and put on a new surgical mask. Those who prefer not to change their current mask of face covering can put the surgical mask on top of their personal mask or face covering.
As we approach the winter, it’s important to understand how to properly select and wear protective face coverings, as well as new guidelines and emerging research that shows the effectiveness of masks.
Why are masks so important?
Masks and other cloth face coverings work by reducing the transmission of respiratory and aerosol droplets, which are small virus particles generated when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe. Research shows that the virus is transmitted from person to person through respiratory droplets, which can linger in the air short term, even after an infected person has left the area.
While you should always stay home if you feel ill, many people with COVID-19 exhibit no symptoms and may not know they are sick. Even with these asymptomatic cases, the virus is still easily spread through respiratory droplet transmission, making masks a crucial preventive measure whenever you go outside.
Current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that you wear a mask or cloth face covering whenever you are in public as well as around those who don’t live in your household. This is especially important when you are not able to maintain six feet of social distancing, as the likelihood of viral transmission is heightened when you are unmasked and in close proximity to another person.
Additionally, the CDC recommends that you thoroughly wash or sanitize your hands before and after handling or removing your mask as it may be contaminated by infected droplets. Between uses, you should also wash and sanitize your cloth mask to further prevent the spread of infection. Pay particular attention to avoid touching the front of your mask or face covering when removing it (with clean hands), because that area has a higher chance of contamination (note photo at left).
According to the CDC, you should not wear a mask if you are under the age of two, have trouble breathing or cannot remove your mask without assistance. It’s also important to avoid wearing or purchasing masks intended for healthcare workers, such as N95 respirators, as these items are critical for frontline workers.
And although the main purpose of a mask is to protect others, studies have shown that they may also protect the wearer from infection by preventing the inhalation of COVID-19 droplets.
Types of Masks
While experts are still evaluating the effectiveness of non-medical grade masks, multi-layered cloth masks appear to be the most protective (amongst cloth masks) against COVID-19.
And although neck gaiters are popular because of their comfort and convenience, you should make sure they have at least two layers of fabric or fold them over while wearing them for proper protection and filtration. Additionally, experts recommend avoiding masks with exhalation valves, as these release unfiltered air that may include respiratory or aerosol droplets that put others at risk.
Face shields may also seem like a suitable alternative to cloth masks, but they do not properly block respiratory droplets from entering your mouth, nose and eyes. For this reason, face shields can be used in addition to cloth masks for additional protection but are not recommended to be used as your only face covering.
Fitting your mask
Proper fit is also important to keep in mind when choosing which mask to wear. You are best able to protect yourself and others if your mask rests tightly on your face and covers your mouth and nose without any visible gaps between your skin and the mask. And while the fit should be snug, your mask should not obstruct your ability to breathe comfortably.
Not only does a properly fitting mask prevent the spread of respiratory droplets, but it also prevents you from touching your face and repositioning your mask. This, in turn, helps you reduce the risk of infection.
Wearing a mask is an easy and effective way to help prevent the spread of COVID-19 as it protects you and others. As we continue to fight this pandemic, it is important to take the proper steps to mitigate exposure and community spread.