By: Julia Heilrayne
Media, Research and Policy Reporter
As the COVID-19 crisis seems to be on a downward trend in most of the world, the virus is still raging on here in the United States (1). Major discussions are happening on social media, in government offices, and across the dinner table about what the government can or should do in order to address the pandemic. One of the main discussion points: mandatory mask orders. Let’s actually look at the science behind why wearing a mask is an easy and essential step we can all take, and how it reduces the transmission of the virus.
One of the first things that’s important to know is how COVID-19 spreads and you become infected. To put it simply, the virus is spread through water droplets. These droplets leave your body when you breathe, speak, sing, laugh, cough, sneeze, or do a number of other activities (2). When an infected individual ejects these droplets into the air and a non-infected individual breathes them in, that person may become infected (2). Once someone becomes infected, it becomes incredibly easy for them to go home and spread the virus to members of their family, especially people who are elderly, immunocompromised, or “high risk” for another reason (see the CDC website for who is currently considered high risk).
Next, let’s talk about what masks do and how well they can protect you from the Coronavirus. The various face mask options (surgical masks, N95 masks and respirators, cloth masks, face shields, etc.) are all different and therefore protect people with varying levels of effectiveness (3). However, it has been shown that when mandatory mask rules are set in place, the rate of COVID-19 spread slows by two percentage points over a three week time period (4). Two percentage points can save thousands of lives. Between April 8, 2020 and May 15, 2020 mask mandates in 15 different U.S. states as well as D.C. prevented as many as 450,000 new cases from developing (5). In a July study by the University of Washington School of Medicine, they found that if at least 95 percent of people wore a mask in public, we could prevent 58 percent of deaths due to COVID-19 by November 1st (8).
There are four different types of face coverings recommended by health professionals and, as mentioned before, different masks have different levels of effectiveness against the virus. (6). First, professional respirators (also known as N95 respirators) are medical devices made to prevent exposure to tiny droplets that can remain suspended in the air (6). Those who wear them undergo a fit-test to find the right make, model and size to ensure a tight seal. N95 respiratory masks are currently in very short supply and are most important for medical professionals and individuals deemed medically necessary by medical professionals (6). Second, procedural and surgical masks are loose-fitting masks designed to cover the mouth and nose (6). Despite these masks not being close fitting, disposable masks are fluid resistant and provide some protection against larger respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes (6). These masks are mainly created to prevent the person wearing it spreading infectious droplets to others (6). They cannot be washed. Third, cloth and paper masks may help slow the spread of COVID-19, and help keep people who may unknowingly have the virus from transmitting it to others (6). Last, a face shield is a piece of rigid, clear plastic attached to a headband (6). The plastic piece covers the face, extending to below your chin (6). You should not need a face shield as long as you are maintaining social distancing guidelines and wearing a mask (6).
As the need for us to continue wearing masks continues, many people are wondering how to make their own masks and if that is an effective strategy to prevent the spread of the virus. Johns Hopkins Medicine is not only encouraging this, but also providing patterns for both adult sized masks and child sized masks (6). You can make a mask out of bandannas, scarves, hand towels, or any items made of cotton or linen are a good place to start (6). Thicker, more densely woven cotton fabrics are best, such as quilting cotton or cotton sheets (6). A good tip is to hold the fabric up to the light: the fewer tiny holes you can see, the better it will work to filter droplets (7). This means that stretchy knits aren’t ideal. Overall, making a good mask involves finding a balance: You want fabric that doesn’t allow droplets to pass through while ensuring you can still breathe properly with your mask in place.
We are all doing a tremendous amount to try and keep ourselves and our loved ones safe during this difficult time. From working from home, to disinfecting everything, to checking on friends and family virtually; it can get overwhelming! However, studies are increasingly clear that the number one thing you can do to protect yourself and others, especially those who are considered "high risk” (many individuals who are chronically ill), is to wear a mask. Even if it’s not the perfect one, wearing something is better than wearing nothing at all.
As infectious disease specialist Chin-Hong explained it, “wearing a mask, washing your hands, and watching your distance [are all important], but of the three, the most important thing is wearing a mask.”
Have you taken the pledge to wear a mask yet? Join doctors and nurses, teachers and students, artists and business owners, patients and caregivers in recognizing that #WeAreAllVulnerable to COVID-19 and take the pledge to #WearAMask. Together we can slow the spread
1. Take the digital pledge to wear a mask at www.fightlikeawarrior.org/weareallvulnerable
2. Use campaign graphics and/or printable signs to create your own social media post and spread the word! Use #WeAreAllVulnerable and tag @fightlikeawarrior
3. Nominate 2 friends or family members to take the pledge and get involved!