Masks and COVID-19: What, Why and Where


A little background: I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, where we’re required to wear face masks when we’re out in public.

I recently took my weekly socially-distanced trip to the grocery store. I grabbed my hand sanitizer, put on my facial mask, and headed to Lucky’s. And while I was happy to see that everyone there was obeying the posted guidelines that “all customers must wear masks,” I was a bit dismayed to find that several of my fellow shoppers were wearing their masks incorrectly. A couple of people had their mouths covered but their noses exposed, and one person had their mask on so loosely you could clearly see his entire face!

After coming home, I thought that it might be helpful to our readers and their kids to go over some information about masks: why we should be wearing them during this pandemic, when we need to be wearing them, and what types of masks you can wear (as well as how to properly wear them!)

The author, in a homemade Quidditch mask. Image by Paul Benson.

Why Wear A Mask?

In some parts of the country, like mine, you are required to wear a face mask, while in other parts, it’s more of a suggested guideline. But really, until we have a reliable vaccine for COVID-19, it’s a really good idea to wear one.

The CDC reports that when an infected person sneezes or coughs, they produce droplets that contain the virus that causes COVID-19. These droplets can remain suspended in the air for up to three hours and be transmitted at least 13 feet by aerosols that are emitted by breathing or speaking. Masks can block or limit these droplets.

You may be asking yourself, “well, why should I wear a mask if I’m not showing any symptoms of the coronavirus?” For one, the mask will help protect you some from someone else carrying the virus that may cough or sneeze. But more importantly, you yourself may be carrying the coronavirus and not even be aware that you’re infected. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director Dr. Anthony Fauci has estimated that 25-50 percent of coronavirus cases are asymptomatic. By wearing a mask, you can help prevent transmission in that latter case.

Here’s a popular infographic which illustrates why you should wear a mask:

The urine test. Image via Reddit.

When and Where You Should Wear a Mask

Here’s Dr. Fauci, addressing lawmakers in the Senate on May 12, 2020 regarding PPE (Personal Protective Equipment) for the general public:

Basically, if you are interacting with other people, it’s recommended (and required in some areas) that you wear face masks and socially distance. And if you have tested positive for coronavirus, it’s absolutely imperative that you wear one to prevent the spread of the virus!

What Kind of Mask Should You Wear?

In an ideal situation, we’d all have access to medical-grade surgical or N95 masks. But we’re in a pandemic, so those are rightly being reserved for the healthcare workers who are at the front lines of combating this crisis.

The CDC recommends washable cloth masks, preferably with two different layers of fabric. If you hunt around, you can still find masks available in stores that are priced reasonably. Disney even offered up their own face masks for preorder recently, but they’re not due to ship until the end of July.

It can be difficult to find masks for sale at reasonable prices these days, but often you can find bandanas and similar-style masks online, such as the silly one you see me wearing here:

Tube mask. Image by Paul Benson.

And there’s no reason why you should have to purchase a mask. There are multiple tutorials on how to make your own masks online. There are even “no-sew” instructions available, such as this simple one from the CDC:

No-sew mask instructions. Image by the Center for Disease Control.

The CDC is actually a great resource for making and wearing cloth masks, and you can find all that information at their website.

How to Wear a Face Mask

This shouldn’t be rocket science, but I regularly see people getting it wrong. So here you go, courtesy of the World Health Organization (WHO):

How to wear a mask. Image by WHO.

Cover mouth and nose with the mask. This is the only way you’ll protect yourself and others.

A Quick Note on N95 Particulate Masks

For people that deal with dust and outdoor painting, or the smoke from fire season, you’re probably familiar with the N95 particulate mask, which has a respirator valve as you can see in the picture below. Even if you have some of these masks, you should not be using them. That valve makes it easier to breathe…and also makes it easier for droplets containing coronavirus to both enter and exit the mask.

N95 Particulate mask. Image by 3M.

Some Final Thoughts

Very few people want to wear masks. I know, I get it. But hopefully I’ve laid out the reasons as to why you need to be wearing them, and given you some of the resources you need to make sure that you’re doing it right.

With a lot of the United States and other countries starting to reopen businesses and beaches, there’s a mistaken perception by many that the crisis is over. As Dr. Fauci and numerous other medical experts have noted, it’s far from over. We’re already starting to see fresh surges in places that have relaxed their shelter in place rules too early.

Wearing PPE and social distancing are vital to slowing the spread of coronavirus. While it’s still likely that there will be a spike in cases as we reopen the country, the more people that continue to follow these guidelines properly, the smaller that spike will likely be.

Stay safe everyone. It’s a crazy time, but we’ll get through it.

How to wear a mask. Image by WHO.
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