Over the past several weeks and months, I’m sure you’ve heard that “my mask protects you and your mask protects me.” But how exactly does wearing a mask minimize the spread of COVID-19?
COVID-19 spreads mainly from person to person through viral particles in respiratory droplets produced when an infected person talks, coughs, sneezes or raises their voice (such as while shouting or singing). These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of others nearby or may be inhaled into the lungs. Even infected individuals who are asymptomatic (do not show signs of COVID-19) or pre-symptomatic (have not yet developed symptoms, but will later) can infect others through these droplets.
Masks help prevent the spread of COVID-19 predominantly through what is called source control. Source control means the point of protection is at the source from whom the virus may spread: the infected individual.
Cloth masks act as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling through the air. Masks trap larger droplets before they can evaporate. Once droplets evaporate viral particles may linger in the air and increase the chance of transmission to others. Essentially a mask helps prevent viral particles from reaching other people.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed an earlier stance on masking due to increased and widespread transmission of COVID-19, with several studies showing pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic spread, as well as, the effectiveness of widespread mask-wearing in significantly slowing the spread of the disease. The CDC strongly recommends wearing a cloth mask in public settings when around people outside your household, especially when other social distancing measures are challenging to maintain. The Pennsylvania Secretary of Health also recently signed an order requiring masks to be worn in all public places in the state. Since there is emerging evidence that a good percentage of people with COVID-19 don’t have symptoms, or don’t have symptoms right away, it is important for everyone to take the precaution of wearing a mask to protect those around them.
Individuals over two years of age, except in special circumstances, should wear a mask. The more people wearing masks, the better off our community will be.
To ensure your mask is most effective at protecting others, it must be worn properly. Make sure it covers your nose and mouth and is secure under your chin. It should also fit snugly against the sides of your face. You should be able to breathe easily through it.
There are several misconceptions about wearing a mask. Some people are fearful that wearing a mask for a long time will trap the air they exhale and cause them to breathe in excess amounts of carbon dioxide. This is not true. A properly constructed mask offers plenty of ventilation. Make sure your mask fits well and you can breathe through it easily. Others are concerned that wearing a mask loosens adherence to other safety measures and encourages people to touch their face. In general, the opposite is true. Wearing a mask reminds people to continue to be cautious. Again, it is important that your mask fits well so that you are not fidgeting with it. And always wash your hands before and after you put your mask on. Finally, some feel that wearing a mask is a sign of weakness or fear. It is really a sign of respect and care for those around you.
Cloth masks are the recommendation for the general public; surgical masks and respirators are considered critical supplies and should be reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders.
And remember, masks are one important method available to us to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Be sure to follow other everyday precautions like practicing social distancing, cleaning and disinfecting surfaces frequently, and following good hand hygiene to help keep you and others safe.
Cynthia Alexander, MD, is a provider with Mount Nittany Physician Group Internal Medicine. Dr. Alexander sees patients at the Mount Nittany Health—Bellefonte location.