New information is emerging daily on how COVID-19 spreads and the best ways to protect against the virus. The most effective protections include washing your hands frequently with soap and water and practicing physical distancing. However, wearing cloth face masks or coverings in public when physical distancing can’t be observed does offer protection against spread of COVID-19.
John Hopkins Medicine, the leading institution in infection prevention, provides the following guidance on face masks or coverings in public.
Yes, if you are in a public place where you will encounter other people, you should wear a mask.
Your mask should cover your face from the bridge of your nose to under your chin. Make sure you can talk with your mask on and that it doesn’t irritate you, so you are not tempted to touch it or pull it out of place, which could put you at risk from touching your face or limit its effectiveness.
Face masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Because it’s possible to have coronavirus without showing symptoms, it is best to wear a face covering even if you think you are healthy. A mask helps contain small droplets that come out of your mouth and/or nose when you talk, sneeze or cough. If you have COVID-19 and are not showing symptoms, a face mask reduces your chance of spreading the infection to others. If you are healthy, a mask may protect you from larger droplets from people around you.
According to the CDC, recent studies indicate a significant portion of people who have COVID-19 don’t show symptoms, and the virus can spread before they realize they are sick. This research — combined with the fact that the coronavirus can spread through close proximity to others, often by speaking, coughing or sneezing — led to their recommendation for the general public to wear cloth masks in public, especially in situations where physical distancing may be difficult, such as grocery stores or on public transportation, and in areas where there is a significant amount of community transmission.
People with risk factors for severe consequences of COVID-19: This would include people over age 65 and those living with heart disease, diabetes, obesity, chronic lung disease, immunity problems or cancer.
In order to protect from the spread of droplets, a surgical or cloth mask should be worn in a home setting by those with COVID-19 when they are around others. If the person who is ill is unable to wear a mask, their caregiver should wear one.
Masks and Other Protective Equipment for Health Care Workers
Health care workers testing and treating patients for COVID-19: Anyone interacting directly with people ill or suspected to be ill with COVID-19 need professional respirators, such as N95 respirators, which are designed for medical use. N95 respirators fit the face snugly and filter the air to stop respiratory droplets from getting through or around the device.
Health care workers in patient areas, but not working directly with COVID-19 patients: Procedural, surgical and cloth face masks are being used to help guard against the possible spread of COVID-19. These masks don’t have a tight seal and are made of different types of materials.
Similar to influenza and other respiratory viruses, the virus that causes COVID-19 appears to be transmitted primarily through large respiratory droplets. Surgical or procedural masks provide protection against respiratory droplet spread.
Called N95 respirators, these medical devices are made to prevent exposure to tiny droplets that can remain suspended in the air. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) does not recommend that the general public wear N95 respirators to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including coronavirus (COVID-19). Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.
A surgical mask is a loose-fitting, disposable device that creates a physical barrier between the mouth and nose of the wearer and potential contaminants in the immediate environment.
Although they are not close fitting, blue, disposable masks are fluid resistant and provide some protection against larger respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. Primarily, they prevent the wearer from spreading infectious droplets to others. Like N95 respirators, these masks are used by health care workers whose safety depends on an adequate supply. They cannot be washed.
The CDC recommends that members of the public use simple cloth face coverings when in a public setting to slow the spread of the virus, since this will help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.
Look for masks made with at least 2 layers of fabric. It should cover your nose and mouth without large gaps. this can be helped by using a 3-D mask or a mask with a nose wire. The mask should have ear loops or ties so you can adjust it; adjustable ear loops are the best. For people who wear glasses, look for a mask with a bendable border at the top so you can mold the mask to fit the bridge of your nose and prevent your glasses from fogging. Professional masks should be reserved for health care workers on the front lines caring for patients.
A face shield is a piece of rigid, clear plastic attached to a headband. The plastic piece covers the face, extending to below your chin.
You might have seen face shields on some of your health care providers, even before the COVID-19 pandemic. Dentists and dental hygienists sometimes wear them when they are working close to their patients’ mouths. Doctors, nurses and technologists might use face shields, together with face masks, when performing certain procedures that could propel blood or other substances into the air.
If you maintain physical distancing of at least 6 feet between you and other people when in public places, you will not need a face shield. Wearing a mask will contain your respiratory droplets. Avoid close contact with anyone who is not wearing a mask.
No, you cannot get a waiver or exemption from wearing a face mask. Recently, fake cards and flyers, claiming that the bearer is exempt from mask-wearing regulations, have shown up in some areas. They claim that the person carrying them has a physical or mental condition covered by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) that makes them unable to wear a face mask or covering.
The United States Department of Justice has issued a statement about these fake mask exemptions, explaining that these cards and flyers are fraudulent.
In times of a pandemic, it’s understandable to want to do everything possible to protect yourself from becoming ill. While wearing a mask will prevent you from spreading COVID-19 if you have it and don’t know it, physical distancing and frequent, thorough handwashing are still the best ways to avoid getting COVID-19.
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