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A guide to face masks, which health experts say are essential to slowing the coronavirus spread

  • Author: Natalia Gutierrez-Pinto, The Idaho Statesman
  • Updated: June 26, 2020
  • Published June 26, 2020

FILE - In this June 18, 2020, file photo a man wears a face mask while cleaning an outdoor dining table at The Hook at Pier 39, where some stores, restaurants and attractions have reopened, during the coronavirus outbreak in San Francisco. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, we have been hit by a wave of confusing information about the benefits of wearing face masks to prevent the spread of the virus.

Health authorities initially encouraged mask use only for people who were sick or caring for someone who was. But despite recent guidelines recommending a more general use, many people still question the need for wearing masks in public situations.

So, what should you take into account when considering using a mask? Here’s the information you need to make your decision:

Wearing masks limits spread of the virus

The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 mainly spreads via small droplets of saliva that come out of your mouth and nose while talking, coughing or sneezing. Evidence suggests that an infected person can spread the virus before experiencing symptoms or even when never showing symptoms at all.

In fact, a recent study found that people who have yet to start feeling sick have the highest amount of virus in their bodies and may be responsible for at least 25% of new infections. Another study found that around 40% of the people who have tested positive for the coronavirus never become ill and may be infectious for longer than the average 14 days.

Knowing that the virus can spray out of our mouths when we don’t know yet if we are infected, the importance of covering our faces with masks to stop the spread of the disease becomes clearer. Although wearing a mask “is not necessarily going to stop a coronavirus particle from getting to you … it limits your ability to spread it to other people,” said Dr. Vineet D. Menachery — an immunologist at the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston — in a media briefing for SciLine.

Proof of that is the story of two hairdressers in Missouri who worked with 140 clients without knowing they were infected with the coronavirus, but no customers were infected thanks to their use of masks.

Even the weakest mask is better than none

The main reason why the World Health Organization discouraged the use of masks at the beginning of the pandemic was that medical-grade masks were in short supply, and officials feared that people would hoard masks as they were hoarding toilet paper. Back then (early March), it was important to prioritize the safety of the medical professionals on the front line of the fight, but many interpreted this guidance as evidence that wearing masks was either ineffective or even harmful for the general public.

More recently, WHO insisted that surgical and N95 masks should only be used by health professionals and people in high-risk groups, but encouraged widespread use of cloth masks in public settings. This is also the official recommendation of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The WHO recommendation is to use cloth masks with three layers, which can be easily made by placing a coffee filter between two layers of fabric. According to two recent studies that used mathematical models to predict if the epidemic can be contained by general mask use, if a large proportion of the population uses masks, we can dramatically reduce the spread of the disease.

One of these studies showed that, regardless of the quality or material of the mask, the rate of new infections was lowered when the percentage of population wearing masks increased, also reducing hospitalization and death rates. The other study showed similar results, even when considering claims that masks can be dangerous when used incorrectly.

Masks protect you better when used correctly

Common arguments against the use of masks include that a mask may increase how many times you touch your face, that you may experience suffocation, or that a wet mask may give you a bacterial infection. According to Dr. Rob Cavagnol, executive medical director and general surgeon at St Luke’s Clinic in Boise, Idaho, there are no such risks of using a mask.

“The mask doesn’t filter out oxygen,” he said, so the feeling of suffocation might be subjective, and he mentioned that “the risk of getting (an infection) from your mask is exceedingly low.”

Experts agree that how much we benefit from wearing a mask depends on how well we use it. The most important recommendation is to make sure your nose and mouth are completely covered by the mask. Also, try not to touch your face and avoid touching your mask unless you plan to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer immediately. Ideally, keep a few masks for your personal use so that you don’t have to use the same one for a long time, and always wash the one you used with soap and water or keep it in a sealed plastic bag until you can do so.

If you have to reuse your mask, Cavagnol recommends that you make sure you only touch the straps that tie around your head or go around your ears, and that you remember which side was touching your face so you can put it back the same way. And keep in mind that wearing a mask does not replace washing your hands or practicing social distancing.

No, you don’t have to wear your mask all the time

If you are not experiencing COVID-19 symptoms, experts recommend using masks only in public situations where you can’t keep a minimum distance of 6 feet between you and other people. This means that you should consider wearing a mask in closed spaces where you will be in contact with lots of people, such as grocery or department stores, at work, at worship places, or while using public transportation. “It really makes a huge difference,” Cavagnol said.

Being in open spaces is OK as long as you are by yourself or can keep your distance from others, and your decision to wear a mask should depend on how many people you think you will run into, and whether you are in one of the high-risk groups. However, if the park is crowded or if you plan to attend any mass gatherings, it is better that you wear a mask.

If you have any flu-like symptoms or are infected with the coronavirus, you should avoid contact with people and definitely wear a mask if you have to be in public. Remember that the main benefit of wearing a mask is to protect others.