Photo: Robin Gentry / EyeEm / Getty
When the COVID-19 pandemic was still building momentum, experts stressed repeatedly the public should not buy face masks. Not only was it not necessary to prevent infection, but since there was a mask shortage, hoarding masks would put healthcare workers in danger.
But then, about a week ago, the advice changed: Suddenly the CDC recommended that we do wear masks, which raises questions about where this advice is coming, and how it might change in the future. Questions that, for the most part, the CDC was happy to answer.
Why did the recommendation change?
“The original message, ‘Don’t go randomly around wearing a mask,’ that was focused on protection,” explained Dr. Mike Bell, Deputy Director of Healthcare Quality Promotion at the CDC. “Randomly wearing masks to protect yourself — it was not well reported, it didn’t make sense,” he said.
“What we’ve found since is that a good portion of individuals who have COVID-19 actually have a window of infectiveness, they’re shedding the virus and can infect other people, before they show any symptoms. We also found that some people never show symptoms at all. That means some people who aren’t coughing or sneezing can still be a source of infection for other people.”
Aside from being lethal, the coronavirus is incredibly infectious. Dr. Bell referenced an incident in Washington State, where a 45 members of a 52-person choir group were diagnosed with COVID-19 days after a rehearsal.
In short: You’re not wearing your mask to protect yourself; you’re wearing it to protect others from you.
If I can’t find a mask specifically designed for this, what can I use?
“What you’re trying to do is catch spray from your mouth before it gets out there,” Dr. Bell said. “There’s research that shows if you catch that spray up close, they’re still big and bulky and easy to contain. Once that spray gets out, they shrink, they dry out, and they get a lot tougher to contain.”
In other words, you’re spitting all the time (don’t take offense; everyone is a disgusting spit-monster), but the fabric of a mask catches the spit before it gets airborne.
Counter-intuitively, it’s important that your mask be breathable rather than stifling.
“With a filter, to be effective, you have to breathe through it,” Bell said. “If there’s a dense fabric in front of you, you’re going to suck in air from the side.”
The CDC website currently recommends placing a coffee filter inside a mask, though Dr. Bell clarified that that is an error and will be corrected.
Don’t ignore common sense for the sake of a mask
“Don’t do anything dangerous,” Bell said. “I’ve seen people using plastic bags, vinyl containers strapped to their faces. Don’t do that. God forbid something happens that makes you pass out or asphyxiate.”
Also, be mindful of who wears a mask.
“Don’t strap things to people who won’t be able to take them off if they have trouble breathing, like little kids or people who can’t move freely. They shouldn’t be out anyway.”
The mask is an extra precaution for people who have to go outside, but keep your eye on the big picture when you’re deciding whether you need to use one.
Remember that masks are only one part of prevention
Masks are not a replacement for social distancing, they’re not a magic barrier to prevent COVID-19 infection, and they don’t negate other pieces of important advice, like not touching your face.
While many are worried about contracting the virus simply by touching something, the truth is your eyes, nose and mouth are the places you need to protect most. “People think the virus will somehow drill through the skin on their hand — it can’t,” Bell said.
That’s why hand-washing is (and always has been) so important.
“It’s not just this virus. Everything you touch out there has plenty of organisms on it. There’s the question, ‘Oh my gosh, do I need to sterilize my mail?’ Your mail has always had organisms on it. No matter what you touch, you should wash your hands before you touch your eye or face.”
As for how important wearing a mask is, Bell explained that it’s one part of staying safe.
“I want to make sure people aren’t missing the forest for the trees and focusing too much on a mask, when there are other elements that are important to their health.”
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Joshua Sargent is an editor for Hearst Newspapers. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.