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To help prevent more people from getting COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that everyone in the US wear simple cloth masks when they’re out in public.
Health officials were hesitant to advise masks for all, for a few reasons. They didn’t want the general public to deplete the already low supply of protective personal equipment, or PPE, needed for healthcare workers and first responders. Also, based on previous research, it wasn’t clear that just-in-case mask usage was all that beneficial. Finally, the CDC didn’t want people to derive a false sense of security from masks and ease up on social distancing as a result.
Recent coronavirus research, however, strengthened the case for masks, as studies indicate that a substantial portion of people with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms — and might be spreading the virus unknowingly. What’s more, experts now know that people who do go on to develop symptoms can transmit the virus before their symptoms show up.
Masks reduce transmission by preventing sick people from infecting healthy ones, as the virus is primarily spread via respiratory droplets that are released when someone coughs, sneezes, talks or even breathes. The CDC’s updated guidelines say that people should wear masks in public places where proper social distancing can be difficult, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. Following this guidance is especially important for those in areas with high rates of community spread.
But masks aren’t effective unless they’re used properly, which isn’t a given, according to infectious disease experts.
“Here’s the thing with all masks — if they’re worn incorrectly, they can be more dangerous than not having one,” says Kelley M. Boston, a Houston-based expert on infection prevention and control. That’s because wearing a mask incorrectly puts you at risk of self-contamination.
Here are answers to six key questions about masks.
What type of mask should I get?
For the general public — meaning people not directly caring for COVID-19 patients, like healthcare workers and first responders — a basic cloth mask will suffice. N95 respirator masks and surgical masks should be reserved for healthcare workers.
Cotton fabric is a good choice. The mask should consist of two layers of material, not one, to keep respiratory droplets from spreading, says Dr. Sharmila Anandasabapathy, a professor of medicine and director at Baylor Global Health. “You don’t need more than that,” she says, “it will be uncomfortable.” The mask needs to completely cover both your nose and your mouth, extending down to your chin.
What if I can’t find any masks to buy? Or nothing that will arrive soon?
A lot of people are making their own masks at home using household items like pillowcases or towels. As long as the mask is thick enough to potentially capture droplets, but thin enough so you can still breathe, that should be fine, Anandasabapathy says. The CDC has come out with a no-sew mask pattern using a coffee filter and a bandana, and created a video on how to make a mask at home with rubber bands and folded fabrics.
What’s the safest way to put on a mask?
First, wash your hands with soap and water. If the mask has ties, secure both ties behind your head, tight enough so that you can’t slip a finger underneath the mask. If the mask has elastic bands, loop the bands over your ears. Adjust the mask as needed, so that it’s comfortable but secure. Take your time with this. Once you’re out in public with your mask on, don’t touch it again until you’re ready to take it off. “Be aware masks can be really uncomfortable,” Boston says. “They can be hard to breathe in, they fog your glasses. Prepare for that. Practice settling in for the discomfort.”
What about taking it off?
When you’re ready to remove your mask, wash your hands first, then remove it by the ties or elastic band. Don’t touch the fabric part of the mask. Wash your hands again after your mask is off. Boston recommends practicing safely removing your mask. “That’s the most dangerous time,” she says, “when you’re most likely to contaminate yourself or your surroundings.” Cover the outside of your mask with shaving cream, then try to remove it. See where you got shaving cream. Keep working at it until you can do it without getting shaving cream anywhere you don’t intend to.
How do I clean my mask?
If you’re using a surgical mask you already had, it’s disposable, and intended to be one-use only. You can’t put it in the wash. For a cloth mask, once you’ve removed it, put it in a bag to clean later. You can use a plastic baggie or a reusable, waterproof wet bag. Write “dirty” on the outside of the bag so you don’t mistakenly reuse it. Consider anything the mask touches to be contaminated. Anandasabapathy says to machine wash your cloth mask regularly. Using any standard detergent, wash it in hot water and dry it on hot, adds Boston.
If I wear a mask, does that mean I don’t have to social distance anymore?
No, a mask does not replace social distancing. “A mask is a secondary level of precaution, it’s not foolproof,” says Anandasabapathy. The most effective way to help prevent further spread of COVID-19 is still to physically separate yourself from other people. Don’t put on a mask and have a party, she says. Instead, use a mask when you’re going somewhere where you might not be able to maintain a 6-foot personal bubble, like the grocery store, the pharmacy, or even your local running trail. “If I know I’m going to have density of other people, then I would wear the mask,” Anandasabapathy says.