COVID-19: Do You Still Really Need to Wear that Face Mask?

Published July 10th, 2020 by Dr. Miriam Opara, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

COVID-19 is a new virus that was first reported in Wuhan, China, in December 2019. The virus has spread from China to over 100 countries worldwide, resulting in a global pandemic. COVID-19 spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets typically from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.

An experiment used high-speed cameras that revealed how droplets from a sneeze could spread viruses. The cameras showed that fine mist of mucus and saliva could travel from a person’s mouth at nearly 100 miles per hour and travel as far as 27 feet. The droplets land on people nearby and get into mouths and noses. Some droplets are inhaled into the lungs. 

Another way to potentially catch COVID-19 is by touching surfaces that contain the virus and then touching your nose, mouth, or eyes. The virus can live on surfaces for 2-3 days unless the surface is cleaned with a cleaning solution. 

Preventing Transmission is the Key!  

While people who are sick or know that they have COVID-19 should stay at home, COVID-19 can be spread by people who do not have symptoms and do not know they are infected (i.e., asymptomatic). 

So, remember the 3 Ws: 

·       Wash your hands 

·       Watch your distance 

·       Wear a mask 

Wearing a mask is one of the most important ways to prevent transmission. Masks provide an extra layer to help prevent the droplets from traveling in the air and onto other people. 

Types of Face Masks: 

Masks are made of different materials that affect their filtering abilities. 

·       Surgical Masks— are a loose-fitting disposable mask that protects the wearer’s nose and mouth from droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain germs. Surgical masks may protect others by reducing contact to the saliva and respiratory droplets of the mask wearer.

·       N95 Masks—respirator mask that offers more protection than a surgical mask because it can filter out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales. Some N95 masks have valves that make them easier to breathe air out. 

o   The CDC does NOT recommend N95 respirators be used by the general public (even for protection from COVID-19)

·       Cloth Masks— are readily available, cheap, and simple to make. Masks can be made from a common material, such as handkerchiefs, sheets, or cotton. Cloth face masks may slow the spread of the virus by helping people who have the virus and don’t know it from passing it to others. 

o   The CDC DOES recommend the use of cloth masks to be used by the general public to help decrease the spread of COVID-19

Do Face Masks Really Work?

On April 3rd, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued new guidance advising all individuals to wear cloth facial covers in public areas where close contact with others is unavoidable. 

Studies have shown that people are more contagious in the early period of infection when it is common to have few or no symptoms. Non-medical masks have been effective in reducing the transmission of influenza and COVID-19. Widespread mask use can reduce community transmission.  

Also, estimates from a meta-analysis based on a group of smaller trials suggest wearing masks decreases the transmission risk of the flu or flu-like illnesses. 

A natural environment study showed that requiring face mask use in public slowed the daily COVID-19 growth rate. The first five days after requiring a face mask, the growth rate decreased by 0.9%, and at week 3, the daily growth rate slowed by 2%. 

Another study looked at 198 countries and found that death rates due to COVID-19 decreased in countries where wearing a face mask was a cultural norm and enforced by government policies.  

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Who Should Wear a Cloth Face Mask? 

The CDC recommends the general use of simple cloth face masks to help prevent the transmission of COVID-19 in the following: 

·       People 2 years of age or older in public settings where other social distancing (staying 6 feet apart) measures are difficult to maintain

·       General mask precautions 

o   Do NOT put masks on

§  Anyone under 2 years of age

§  Anyone unable to remove the mask without help

o   Do NOT use N95 respirator masks

§  In anyone with a chronic respiratory, cardiac, or other medical condition that makes breathing difficult 

·       These individuals should speak with their healthcare provider first 

§  With valves when sterile conditions are needed 

§  In children or anyone with facial hair due to risk of improper fit which could prevent full protection

Wearing face masks is NOT a substitute for social distancing; watching your distance is part of the 3 Ws. 

How to Properly Wear a Cloth Face Mask:

·       Wash your hands with soap and water 

·       Cover your mouth, nose, and chin  

·       Do not touch your mask while wearing it

·       Comfort is important so that you are not tempted to take it off 

·       Remove mask without touching the front of the mask 

·       Wash your hands with soap and water, or use alcohol-based hand sanitizer 

·       Regularly wash your mask with soap and water or detergent, in hot water, at least once a day 

The Don’ts of Wearing a Face Mask: 

·       Do not wear a loose mask or a mask that is soiled or damaged 

·       Do not wear the mask under the nose or chin 

·       Do not share masks with other people 

·       Do not reuse surgical or N95 masks (they are intended as one-time use only)

Bottom Line: 

Face masks have been shown to help reduce the spread of COVID-19. Preventing transmission of this virus is key and, therefore, the CDC currently recommends the use of cloth face masks for the general public. Wearing a cloth face mask should be standard practice in public places, especially when social distancing is not possible. 


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Published July 10th, 2020 by Dr. Miriam Opara, PharmD
Fact Checked by
Chris Riley

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