It's as simple as good hygiene.

By Taylyn Washington-Harmon
September 04, 2020
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The decision to wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic has become more of a political issue than a health issue, as writer Maggie O'Neill reported for Health. "I've never felt quite as at-the-mercy-of-those-around-me as I have during the past four months," she wrote. With a lack of national protocol around when and where to wear a face mask, it's not abnormal to be shamed for wearing one and angry when others don't. However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a completely non-partisan health organization, recommends "people wear cloth face coverings in public settings when around people outside of their household, especially when other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain." So why all the fuss? Basically, though some people simply don't like to be forced to do anything, especially by the government, scientists have proven that taking this extra precaution (in addition to socially distancing) helps to significantly curb the spread of coronavirus. Here are some of the top reasons why it's important to wear a mask right now, plus who should wear one.

Who should wear a mask?

To slow the spread of COVID-19, the CDC recommends almost all healthy kids and adults wear a mask, except for children under the age of 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The World Health Organization (WHO) stress that Americans should not purchase medical-grade surgical masks or N95 respirators, however, which would only deplete dwindling PPE supplies that medical professionals need to protect them from both airborne and fluid hazards. A cloth or fabric mask is what the general public should stick with.

Also, if you've seen "Face Mask Exemption Cards" claiming to give people a free pass from wearing a mask for "medical reasons," they're completely fake according to The New York Times. "Wearing a face mask posses a mental and/or physical risk to me. Under the Americans with Disability Act (ADA), I am not required to disclose my condition to you,” reads the card—which not only misspells "poses," but also incorrectly names the Americans with Disabilities Act.

According to Jim Keany, MD, an emergency physician, patient safety physician champion, and former chief of staff at Mission Hospital in Orange County, California, if your respiratory status is truly that tenuous that you’re not able to breathe through a cloth face covering, you should stay home and not expose yourself to any risk. “If you are truly that fragile, a COVID-19 infection could be a death sentence,” he previously told Health

Surgical or medical face masks are for:

  • Health care workers
  • People with COVID-19 symptoms
  • People taking care of someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19
  • People who are 60 years old or older (when social distancing isn't possible in areas with widespread COVID-19)
  • People who have underlying health conditions (when social distancing isn't possible in areas with widespread COVID-19)

Cloth face coverings or fabric masks are for everyone when:

  • COVID-19 is widespread
  • Physical distancing of at least 6 feet isn't possible (including on public transportation, workplaces, stores, and other crowded environments)

Why should you wear a mask?

1. They reduce viral transmission (if worn correctly).

“Surgical masks and cloth coverings can reduce viral transmission by 70% if everyone wears them and wears them correctly over [their] nose and mouth,” Purvi Parikh, an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network and clinical assistant professor at the Department of Medicine at NYU Grossman School of Medicine previously told Health, emphasizing the importance of not only wearing a mask, but wearing it properly. According to the CDC, that means washing your hands before putting on your face mask and making sure it covers your nose and mouth once in place. It should also fit snugly against your face and remain there until you leave a public setting.

2. They prevent asymptomatic spread.

According to the CDC, an estimated 50% of transmission happens before people develop any COVID-19 symptoms. Wearing a mask is an easy way to reduce the risk of unknowingly spreading the infection, he says, but it’s not a panacea—people also need to observe social distancing rules and practice good hand hygiene. “Masks don’t take the place of these other measures,” Eric Westman, MD, an associate professor of medicine at Duke University previously told Health.

"Masks are acts of altruism; you are not protecting yourself by wearing a mask," Rochelle Walensky, MD, chief of the infectious diseases division at Massachusetts General Hospital and professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School told reporters during an April 3 briefing held by the Infectious Diseases Society of American. Masks prevent people who are asymptomatic from spreading the virus to others.

It’s also worth noting most cloth face coverings alone won’t totally prevent you from contracting the novel coronavirus. (Only an N95 design, which should be reserved for medical professionals, provides that level of protection.) Rather, face masks prevent the wearer from infecting others when asymptomatic, making it just as important a precaution as social distancing and washing your hands.

3. You're protecting others from illness.

Researchers note that mask-wearing is most effective when it's a communal effort. Consider the fact that the U.S. death toll could reach 211,000 by September 26, according to the CDC, up from the projected 180,000 by a group of Washington researchers. However, it's also been predicted that about many of these deaths could be prevented if 95 percent of the country would wear masks.

4. They're mandated by law in some states.

Though there is no national mandate on mask-wearing, some occur on a state-by-state basis.  For example, many states such as California, Washington, Utah and North Carolina, decided to enact mask requirements after resisting them earlier in the pandemic. States with mask requirements, like New York and New Jersey, are continuing to see new infections decline, even amid mass protests against systemic racism and police brutality.

5. They're good hygiene in general

Medical professionals from surgeons to dentists were wearing masks to protect themselves from droplets, germs, and illness as well to prevent their own germs from spreading, even prior pandemic. In many cultures, wearing a mask when one is ill or has allergies is a sign of respect for others. Wearing a mask to protect yourself is normal, and simply good hygiene when in a high-risk situation.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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