On 11 March 2021, the world reached a dubious milestone – one year since the World Health Organization (WHO) first declared COVID-19 a global pandemic. Soon after that declaration, a large portion of the world shut down. In the 12 months that followed, community stakeholders have become relatively well-versed in the scientific theories surrounding social distancing, viral load, herd immunity, and transmission of respiratory droplets. However, no topic has likely been more discussed (or more heatedly debated) than the need for and use of face masks.
With three vaccines currently being administered in the United States and AstraZeneca seeking FDA approval for a fourth, many are starting to see an end of what has been a very long, dark tunnel. Despite the progress being made in the fight against COVID-19, Americans cannot afford to become complacent. In fact, with several new variants of the virus identified and a recent spike in positive cases throughout Europe and in some parts of the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continues to recommend that people wear masks “in public settings, at events and gatherings, and anywhere they will be around other people.” Moreover, effective 2 February 2021, masks are now required on “planes, buses, trains, and all other forms of public transportation traveling into, within, or out of the United States and in U.S. transportation hubs such as airports and stations.”
Masks are being mandated in these and certain other public settings because, in addition to social distancing and basic hygiene protocols (e.g., hand washing), they have been found effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. When worn properly, masks keep the majority of a person’s respiratory droplets from being expelled into the air – respiratory droplets that can carry the COVID-19 virus if someone is infected. Certain masks can also help protect the wearer from becoming infected if they are exposed to someone with the virus.
If you’ve been fully vaccinated:
- You can resume activities that you did prior to the pandemic.
- You can resume activities without wearing a mask or staying 6 feet apart, except where required by federal, state, local, tribal, or territorial laws, rules, and regulations, including local business and workplace guidance.
When the pandemic started, there was a severe shortage of PPE, and masks had to generally be reserved for healthcare and frontline workers. The United Nations estimated that the demand for surgical masks in 2020 was approximately 2.4 billion. However, with face masks currently for sale at nearly every pharmacy and fashion boutique, face masks and the protection they provide are readily available. Although road weary, the nation still has some miles to cover before reaching the end of this journey, so it is important to revisit the various types of masks available and the proper way to wear and care for them.
Choosing the Right Mask
Experts are quick to point out that the best mask for any individual is one they can wear comfortably and consistently, but there are distinctions.
- Cloth masks – Made from a variety of fabrics, cloth masks are available at most retail stores and mall kiosks. According to the Mayo Clinic, a cloth mask is intended to, “trap respiratory droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs, or sneezes. It also acts as a barrier to protect the wearer from inhaling droplets released by others.” Furthermore, the Mayo Clinic advises that the most effective cloth masks are made with several layers of a tightly woven fabric, such as cotton, because layers help prevent respiratory droplets from being inhaled through or escaping from the mask. Cloth masks have become popular during the pandemic because they allow the wearer to reflect their personal style and affinities, but also because they are washable and reusable. Cloth masks can typically be washed by hand or in a washing machine with other laundry.
- Medical masks – Also called surgical masks, these loose-fitting disposable masks can be purchased at most pharmacies. According to the Mayo Clinic, “They’re meant to protect the wearer from contact with droplets and sprays that may contain germs. A medical mask also filters out large particles in the air when the wearer breathes in.” For a more form-fitting medical mask, wearers should tighten the ear straps by knotting the loops.
- N95 – According to the Mayo Clinic, an N95 mask is a type of respirator, thus it offers more protection than a medical mask because it filters out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales. However, because N95 masks have been in short supply throughout the pandemic, the CDC recommends they be reserved for health care providers. Like surgical masks, N95 masks are intended to be disposable, but researchers are testing ways to disinfect and reuse them.
Now is not the time for communities to be complacent. It is time to remind people about the importance and types of masks as well as how to properly wear them.
CDC Dos & Don’ts
The CDC recommends people choose a mask with the following characteristics: (1) has two or more layers of breathable fabric; (2) completely covers the wearer’s nose and mouth; (3) fits snugly against the sides of the wearer’s face without gaps; and (4) has a nose wire to prevent air from escaping through the top of the mask.
The CDC does not recommend people wear masks with exhalation valves or vents – often used in construction to prevent workers from inhaling dust and other small airborne particles, these masks allow virus particles to escape through the valve. As a result, some places have been banned masks with valves. The CDC also does not recommend face shields, as it is not clear how much protection they provide.
Properly Donning a Mask
A facemask, regardless of its type, is only effective if worn properly. The Mayo Clinic recommends these steps when putting on, wearing, and taking off a mask:
- Wash and sanitize hands before and after putting on a mask.
- Be sure the mask covers your mouth, nose, and chin.
- Depending on its design, tie or secure the mask to ensure it fits snugly, with no gaps.
- Try not to touch the mask while wearing it; if accidentally touched, wash or sanitize hands right away.
- If a mask becomes dirty or wet, switch to a clean one (put used masks in a sealable bag until they can be disposed of or washed).
- Remove a mask by untying it or lifting the ear loops; do not touch the front of the mask or the face.
- Wash hands immediately after removing a mask.
Twelve months ago, the length of this journey was unforeseen. Now, as the finish line approaches, it could be costly to just coast or presume there are not still twists, turns, and bumps ahead. Vigilance is key – that means observing all recommended safety protocols, including properly wearing protective masks where required.