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COVID-19: How much protection do face masks offer?

July 3, 2020 by Lee Group
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The coronavirus hot topic of the moment – or at least one of them – continues to be face masks. It’s no wonder some have been confused about the effectiveness of face protection, given that early in the pandemic when the virus was little understood, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) didn’t feel that face masks would be effective in slowing the spread.

It didn’t take the CDC long to change its guidance, however, once the transmission of COVID-19 was better understood. Now, given that it has been confirmed that people can spread the virus through exhaled droplets even without symptoms, wearing face masks is one of the top recommended ways the CDC and other health organizations say we can help reduce the spread of the coronavirus.

But how much protection face masks offer depends on one very important factor: mass adoption of the strategy.

This is because the benefit to wearing face masks is not in protecting the wearer against becoming infected – but in reducing the spread to others by those wearing face protection. The more people who wear them, the less likely it is you will get sick. In other words, it’s a group effort.

How face masks help in the fight against coronavirus

Imagine yourself working at home when suddenly you hear loud music coming from a family member’s room. You ask your relative to close the bedroom door. It doesn’t completely block the noise, but it helps enough for you to get back to work.

That’s how face protection helps.

When worn by people infected by the virus, face masks trap some of the droplets – and reduces the distance any droplets that do escape can travel – thereby reducing the chance of spread to others. They don’t completely block virus transmission, but they help enough to reduce and slow the spread.

What kind of mask is best?

One concern within the medical community has been that the use of N95 masks by the general public would make it harder for healthcare workers to obtain them – and this is true. But there’s also another important reason to avoid the use of N95 in the community: These masks are designed to release the wearer’s exhale unfiltered – so if the wearer has the virus, the virus will not be stopped by an N95 mask. These masks are specifically designed for use in contaminated environments where healthcare workers are caring for infected patients who are often unable to wear masks.

It is in this way that even a simple, homemade cloth mask can do a better job at helping reduce the spread of COVID-19 within a community. Multiple layers of tightly woven fabrics are best – and cloth face masks have the added benefit of being washable and reusable. A face scarf or tied bandana can also work in a pinch.

Other kinds of face guards are becoming popular, too – like safety face shields or face shield visors, which include a transparent guard over the entire face. These safety shields offer a few benefits over face masks in that they don’t inhibit speech and may be more comfortable.

Even when wearing a face mask, you should still take a variety of other precautions, too: clean your hands and high-touch household surfaces frequently, maintain distance from other people, and work from home if you can.

Here at Laredo Emergency Room, it’s our job to take care of our community. And we encourage you to help us in our effort to do exactly that – by wearing face masks. Together, and only together, we can slow the spread of COVID-19.

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