It’s a daily refrain from public health officials: Mask up.
With the economy still sputtering and some schools around the country — though not in Seattle — bringing children back to classrooms, there’s more discussion than ever of the impact widespread masking could have on our ability to stop spreading the virus and return to a kind of normalcy.
After we published several stories in the past week about masks, Seattle Times readers sent us a lot of great questions that were still on your minds. On this week’s FAQ Friday, we’ll address a handful of them.
If you have a question you haven’t seen addressed in The Seattle Times’ coverage, ask it at st.news/coronavirus-questions or via the form at the bottom of this article.
Why is it important to wear a mask because of this virus when we don’t wear masks for colds and flus?
In the United States, wearing a mask while sick isn’t a widespread practice. But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t. Wearing a face covering can protect you and others from spreading the flu for the same reason it protects from the virus that causes COVID-19: It blocks respiratory droplets.
It is common in many East Asian countries to wear a mask when there is a public health emergency or when the flu is circulating. Judy Yuen-man Siu, a medical anthropologist at Hong Kong Polytechnic University, told The Atlantic magazine that it’s been a norm in most of East Asia since at least 2003, when the continent was battling an outbreak of another coronavirus: SARS.
“If you do not use a face mask in public areas, you will be stigmatized and discriminated against, not just because people would [be] afraid of you as a potential virus-spreader, but [also because] it can mean you have low civic responsibility,” she said.
Time will tell whether wearing a mask during flu season becomes more common in the U.S. after this pandemic. But from a scientific standpoint, there’s no reason not to.
Do those one-layer stretchy masks work? If not, what kind should I wear instead?
Editor’s note: After The Washington Post reported on the Duke University study referenced below, the researchers involved clarified its limitations. Other studies of neck gaiters have produced more positive results, especially when the fabric was doubled up into two layers instead of one. You can read more about gaiters here. Bottom line: Cover your face, — preferably with multiple layers, a snug fit and no gaps — and continue to keep your distance even with a mask on.
A recent study by researchers at Duke University found that neck gaiters — thin, stretchy and popular with runners — not only don’t work, but they may actually be worse than not wearing a mask.
That’s because the porous fabric breaks up bigger particles into smaller particles that can possibly hang around longer, said Martin Fischer, a chemist and physicist who worked on the study.
The Duke study found that bandannas also aren’t very effective.
Masks with vents, like the ones worn by construction workers trying to avoid inhaling dust, also don’t prevent viruses from spreading, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Wearing one protects you, but it funnels your concentrated breath outward where it could infect other people.
“The purpose of masks is to keep respiratory droplets from reaching others to aid with source control,” the CDC’s guidance states.
Fitted hospital-grade N95 respirators work best, but those should be reserved for front-line health care workers.
The best option for the general public seems to be common cotton masks. They performed about as well in the Duke study as surgical masks, the study found. The World Health Organization recommends fabric masks should have three layers.
I have a repair person coming to my home regularly to do work. I wear a mask only when he’s present. How often do I need to wash or change that mask?
If you have someone inside your home, you’re smart to wear a mask while the person is there (the other person should wear one, too).
Cloth masks must be washed in order to be properly reused. The best practice is to wash it with soap and water after each use so that, at minimum, you can start every day with a clean mask. That’s why it’s a good idea to have many masks on hand: so you can hand-scrub your used one or throw it in the laundry and grab a fresh one.
“My recommendation would be to wash your mask every day,” Dr. Cassandra Pierre, an infectious disease physician at Boston Medical Center, told Reviewed. “If you’re using it and going out to run errands, you run the risk of having droplets collect on the surface of the mask.”
If you feel you may have been exposed to the coronavirus, however, extra precautions should be taken.
“If you’ve been out on the subway, for example, and someone sneezes on you, you might want to peel off that mask into a plastic bag when you arrive at your destination,” Pierre said. “It’s a higher likelihood that it could be contaminated and you don’t want to wait until the end of the day to wash it.”
Be aware, too, that if your mask becomes worn or frayed, you’ll need to replace it.
Information from the Atlanta Journal-Constitution is included in this report.