There is mounting evidence wearing masks work during a pandemic. While masks are not a substitute for other interventions such as hand hygiene and social distancing, even during a lockdown people need to leave their homes to pick up essential supplies or prescriptions. That is when wearing a mask can save your life.
The two most widely used types of masks are N95 respirators and surgical masks, according to Wired. N95s are tight-fitting and form a seal around the nose and mouth. Surgical masks are looser, and while more comfortable to wear, allow more air to leak through the sides.
Masks reduce the spread of infectious disease by protecting the wearer from catching expelled microbes in the environment, and also making sure the microbes expelled by the wearer are contained.
While medical supplies are in short demand the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have asked consumers not to buy masks, claiming masks are both "essential for health care workers and incapable of protecting the public against COVID-19," according to Wired.
This paradoxical statement has been challenged by many who say there is strong scientific evidence masks DO work. In fact, for a 2009 study of influenza transmission, transmission, nine infected volunteers coughed five times onto a Petri dish while wearing a surgical mask, an N95 respirator, or no covering. Nearly every time someone coughed without a mask, the virus showed up on the dish. No virus was found when the volunteers wore either type of mask, says Wired.
Public health expert Shan Soe-Lin and epidemiologist Robert Hecht write in the Boston Globe: "If you successfully block access to your nose, throat and eyes, you will avoid infection by the coronavirus. There's widespread evidence from the field of occupational health, the SARS epidemic and other outbreaks that wearing masks protects us form germs and interrupts the transmission of disease from sick to healthy."
The authors agree, while surgical masks and N95s should be prioritized for medical professionals, everyone should cover their face when venturing outside.
"A nonmedical mask will not protect you from a direct cough or sneeze from an infected person, but if you're practicing good social distancing, any type of face covering is great protection from your biggest threat: your own hands," he wrote.
Inexpensive cloth masks are available online, according to Hecht.
"Alternatively, scarves, bandana-style neck gaiters, and other similar face coverings can work effectively," Hecht concluded.
The authors recommend placing the mask over the mouth and nose and removing it carefully, without touching the outside surface. Wash cloth masks frequently.
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