A few months ago, the sight of a masked person approaching your house or passing you on the street might have been enough to give you—or anyone—pause. Now, streets and stores are filled with a colorful array of mask-wearing strangers. The masks are pink or blue or leopard; they sport the logos of our favorite superheroes, sports teams, and cartoon characters; and some have even been emblazoned with personal phrases of humor and hope. And while they’ve certainly become the year’s most prolific accessory, many of us are wondering just how long we’ll have to keep covering up.
According to David Hirschwerk, MD, an infectious diseases expert with Northwell Health, it might be a while. That’s because as rules regarding social distancing begin to lighten up and more people venture out, masks may become even more necessary to help prevent against the spread of COVID-19.
Masks help provide a layer of protection to the wearer, as well as help to contain their respiratory droplets. Hirschwerk suggests covering your face whenever social distancing cannot be adhered to. “Whenever there are people in your close vicinity—6 to 8 feet or less—and especially if indoors, a mask should be worn,” he explained. And while it’s true that being outdoors presents a lower risk of getting infected, it doesn’t mean you’re off the hook for wearing a mask. If you’re doing group activities like jogging or biking and are within close proximity to others, covering your face is still important.
Are all masks the same?
The short answer is no. While there is a definite hierarchy of masks, with N95 and surgical masks above their simple cloth counterparts, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend the use of these masks by anyone other than health care workers. That’s because according to the Food and Drug Administration, medical grade masks are “…critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.” Instead, the CDC recommends that the rest of us wear cloth facial coverings.
Are all those colorful cloth masks really effective?
Whether you’ve ordered a mask from your favorite designer or brand, or you’ve jury-rigged something together in your car after realizing that you left your mask sitting on the kitchen counter, the fact is that any mask is better than no mask at all. The most important thing, says Hirschwerk, is having sufficient material to cover both your nose and mouth.
So where can you get a mask that fits the bill? While many national retailers have started carrying their own versions, there are some options for those who’d like to keep their spending closer to home. Nancy Sinoway, a local designer from Port Washington, New York, has transitioned her shop’s production from clothing to masks in order to meet a need in her community.
In late February, following news of the COVID-19 outbreak, Sinoway made a dozen masks for close friends. As word spread that masks were here to stay, she and her team went full steam ahead producing the cloth coverings. “The benefit in having a cloth mask is that they’re lightweight, and can be washed and reused,” said Sinoway. The CDC recommends washing reusable masks after each use either by hand or machine.
Making your own mask
The reality is that the option of purchasing a mask may not always be cost-effective, especially for those with large families. So, when it comes to making your own mask, the CDC suggests keeping a few things in mind:
- The mask fits snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
- It completely covers the nose and mouth
- It can be secured with ties or ear loops
- It includes multiple layers of fabric
- It allows for breathing without restriction
- It can be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to its shape
- Face masks can be sewn or simply put together using fabric and hair ties.
Proper mask care
It’s important to remember that wearing a mask can become less effective if handled incorrectly. To help prevent exposure, the best routine to follow is to wash your hands before and after putting on the mask. From there, make sure both your nose and mouth are covered. While wearing your mask, remember not to touch the front of the mask, or your eyes, nose, and mouth when removing it. When taking a mask off, you should also be sure to only handle it by the ear loops or ties.
Are there any exceptions?
“Everyone should wear a mask,” explained Hirschwerk, “unless it seems to exacerbate an already compromised condition that impairs breathing.” Masks are also not required or recommended by the CDC for anyone under the age of 2, or who is otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.
While wearing a mask might be seen as an inconvenience, it’s important to remember that it’s also a very necessary public health measure. “It’s a simple and effective way to protect our friends, family, and community,” Hirschwerk said.