Mask or No Mask?

Mask or No Mask?  This is a question on a lot of people’s minds.  With CoVid-19 loosening its grip on the United States many are anxious to get back to their lives and businesses.  What does the “new normal” look like and should it involve the wearing of masks outside our homes for the foreseeable future? REMEMBEROnly healthcare professionals and First Responders and their support teams need N-95 medical grade masks- Please do not take away from this precious resource for our “Front-Line” personnel.

Lots of tough questions are being asked and the answers are very nebulous but let’s first acknowledge that Corona Virus-CoVID-19 is a novel virus, meaning we do not have all the answers yet.  Scientists all over the world have been working with unprecedented speed and collaboration to give us empirical data from which our leaders could provide us with better, consistent and scientifically correct answers.

It makes sense that until wide-spread testing of those of us without symptoms is completed, that we enter this next phase of social distancing policy wearing masks outside of our homes.  That begs the questions:

  • What kind of mask?Are homemade masks sufficient?
  • When do we wash reuseable masks?                                                                                                   
  • Will we be able to be less than 6 feet apart?
  • What are the risks associated with long term mask wearing?

In the interest of full disclosure, I am a disaster manager and not a physician, scientist or industrial hygienist.  You should follow the direction of your local government as they have access to the latest data from the experts and they are queenly aware of the situation on the ground in your area.  If you travel for work or to move, visit loved ones (not yet recommended) than please look to those local officials in your destination area as well.  This information is intended to give you general answers to some very complicated questions to help you be part of the solution rather than the problem with regards to the spread of CoVid-19.

REMEMBER:  MOST MASKS Prevent you from transmitting the virus to others (contain your respiratory droplets to your immediate area) they DO NOT protect you from others! Even if you are not sick, you could be carrying the virus and spreading it to those around you.  If the other person in contact with you does not have a mask on, you can still get the virus!

What Kind of Mask—This depends on the type of work/exposure you have.  If your job previously required the wearing of a respirator/mask then you should check with your employer as they know what is safest.  If you work in a general office type environment a cloth/paper (or home-made ones should suffice).  If you work in a high rate of exposure, consider a more sophisticated respirator with filters and valves.  Balaclavas, scarves, bandanas and buffs can be worn in lieu of a mask for the purposes of social distancing.

Some things to consider:

  1. What type of exposure do you have commuting and in your work environment?
    1. Low exposure- cloth masks are sufficient but look for ones that layer the materials (some people made them reversible and those are layered).
    2. Moderate exposure-consider the cloth and paper masks with filters (many home made ones use coffee filters which is not as good as a true filter but in most cases is sufficient).
    3. What size is your face?- Respirators require “Fit Testing” to ensure that the respirator fits the wearer to prevent them being exposed to an outside environmental threat. Cloth and Paper Mask wearing in general is to prevent you from infecting others in your proximity.  Women and children (in general) need a smaller mask.  Since most commercially available models are one-size-fits all, look for an adjustable mask.
    4. How long/often will you be wearing the mask? Comfortable masks are available if you will wear your mask for longer periods of time.  Paper masks are more than acceptable for a quick errand of appointment.
  2. Care of your reusable mask/respirator. If you are wearing a silicone or multi-use respirator follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for daily decontamination.  Experts vary in their opinions but all seem to agree that you should take off your mask after washing your hands first, then remove the mask by the straps NOT the face covering. Dispose of the mask or wash it.  If you wash it use a regular detergent and if possible dry on low setting avoiding shrinking it.  If you cannot dry it-sunlight is a great sanitizer.
  3. How long should I wear my mask/respirator?

-There is much debate in the area of disposable masks.  Depending on the type, they are intended for single use only.  The thought process is that the virus can be on the outside of the mask and you could be exposed when putting it back on.

-Reusable masks such as cloth masks can be worn all day but exercise caution when adjusting it- use gloves or immediately wash your hands. Try to keep a spare at all times.  If your mask gets moist or wet, change it safely.

Respirators with filters/valves should include a work/rest cycle throughout the work day.  Strenuous physical work or people with underlying medical conditions (we are talking even the common diabetes, high blood pressure, asthma) should talk to their employer or doctor as fatigue when wearing a mask is a real thing and can result in physical harm or exacerbation of medical conditions. Again, use extreme caution when removing or adjusting your mask-assume the virus is on the outside.  Wash hands before and after you touch your mask.

  1. What about social distancing? We have gotten used to being at least 6 feet apart-should we still do that?  Yes, the more distance you can put between you and the next person, the better. The virus is still very active and all of these precautions are intended to slow the infection rates.  Masks are a preventative measure-protects them from you though and the social distancing protects you from the infected.  Both are required to curb the spread of CoVid-19 (as of the date of this article).
  2. Beards and Long Hair– There is much talk about facial hair and longer hair interfering with the mask.  Yes both interfere with the seal of a respirator (eg, fire fighter and police are required to remain clean shaven).  If you are wearing a cloth or disposable mask the issue is not as important but I still recommend those with long hair wear it tied up as you are less likely to touch the mask with your hair or hands moving the hair out of your way. Beards should be kept closely trimmed for the same reasons and to ensure a tighter fit.

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