Expert Guidance Plus Practical Tips…
COVID-19 mask use poses a great dilemma.
Someday, historians will look back on these days and try to explain them. They will ask, how did the COVID-19 mask, a simple accessory that saves lives, become such a potent political symbol? So potent that people refuse to mask, risking their lives just to advertise on their faces how they intend to vote?
I was pleased to see some attendees at a campaign rally in Muskegon, Michigan wearing face masks proudly emblazoned “Trump” or “MAGA.” The newsman apparently felt these folks were newsworthy because they were rare. (So rare that some felt obliged to explain that, no, they were not Democrats.)
My blogs have not been shy to recommend masks to those who care about themselves and their families, whatever their politics. As a scientist, I personally want to hear first from healthcare experts, those who know more than I do about risks to health. And then I will weigh their advice with that from economists and politicians in deciding how to best help myself and my family.
OK, end of sermon. This short blog describes some great advice recently published about COVID-19 mask use and re-use, for your and my practical benefit.
Here are the sections of this blog:
How COVID-19 Spreads
Let’s start by summarizing today’s best understanding of the ways that coronavirus spreads, in descending order of importance:
- Large droplets produced by coughing, sneezing, shouting, singing. Controlled by: mask wearing, social distancing.
- Small droplets (aerosols) produced by breathing, talking, plus all of the above. Controlled by: fresh air circulation, air filtering, plus all of the above.
- Touch transfer of contaminated body fluids (snot, mucus, spit, …). Controlled by: hand washing, hand sanitizing.
- Viruses resident on surfaces (fomites). Controlled by: surface cleaning and disinfecting, placing objects in “quarantine” for several days.
The lower items on this list are significantly less important than the higher ones. In fact, given the number of infections traceable to super-spreader events, the second item listed may be as important as the first one.
General Principles For Safety
I’d like to suggest a few principles to guide a thinking person’s behavior:
- Follow local government requirements. Social comity is a good thing to support.
- Try also to follow local government recommendations. They are usually well-intentioned and informed by experts, even if for whatever reason they are not being required.
- Take additional steps to protect you and yours. Those were discussed in earlier blogs (Aerosols, Groceries, Socialization, Workplace, Youth).
- Spend little (or preferably no) time in places or with people where you feel pressured to act unsafely. That super-spreader event might be fun, but is it worth a visit to the ICU? As journalist Jeva Lange says, “just because you’re allowed back in the ocean doesn’t mean the man-eating great white shark that was in there is gone.”
As implied above, for various reasons government may recommend rather than require a precaution, even though infection experts passionately advocate it. For example, 80% of coronavirus cases are caused by super-spreader events that are facilitated by poor ventilation. However, CDC cannot even bring itself to instruct businesses to improve their indoor air quality. CDC’s mealy-mouthed guidance for office buildings merely asks employers to “consider” doing something, fourteen times!
COVID-19 Mask Re-Use
Yes, Americans are sick and tired of wearing masks even as virus cases are burgeoning, driven by bare faces. However, regardless of what the local rules say, it’s still true that the person who wears a mask reduces their own likelihood of catching a serious infection.
– Mask Comfort
Wearing a mask for an extended period is not pleasant. Pity the folks whose jobs require that! One’s face feels hot and sweaty, as if it is hosting a little incubator full of multiplying bacteria. And N95 masks? Bruise city!
One help, when and where permitted, is to pull the mask down beneath your chin when not needed. (Experts recommend against this if you are in the presence of active viruses, because then you’re wiping the virus-laden outside of the mask against your skin.)
Another approach is to change the COVID-19 mask frequently. So that you don’t despoil the planet by filling the landfills with used masks, you naturally want to be able to re-use your mask. And folks who seem to know tell us how we can re-use safely:
– Paper Surgical Masks
The N95 masks worn in emergency rooms provide good protection but they are very uncomfortable and difficult to safely re-use. The readily available three-layer paper “surgical mask” provides meaningful protection with much more comfort, and is safe to re-use if it is not soiled.
I found two articles that countenance re-use of paper masks. Both of them seem to be practical and sensible: one in Today and one from Sarasota Memorial Hospital. I will summarize the main points for your consideration:
- Have 3 to 5 masks so you can rotate their use. It may be helpful to write a number inside each so you can rotate them in order. Plan to wear one for a day or less, then proceed to the next one.
- Whenever a mask is visibly dirty, soiled or torn, discard it. Don’t attempt to clean or repair it.
- To be safe, wash or sanitize your hands before and after handling a mask.
- Remove the mask by holding the ear loops, without touching the potentially contaminated front surface of the mask.
- Fold it once lengthwise with the (possibly dirty) front surfaces together.
- Store the mask where it is protected from household dirt but open to circulating air: in a closed paper bag, or in a plastic bag which remains open to the air. You want the mask to to dry out, because the virus needs moisture to survive. Let it sit there in “quarantine” until it comes up in rotation again.
The principle behind letting a COVID-19 mask rest a few days before re-use is explained by epidemiologist Dr Lucian Davis of Yale: “Based on what we know about how long the virus can live on cardboard, which is similar material to paper, one would think that in 24 to 48 hours, those viruses would no longer be viable.”
– Cloth Masks
You may be one who prefers a cloth mask. Perhaps for its beauty, or variety, or clean look, or its environmental friendliness.
Cloth masks vary widely in effectiveness: two layers are substantially better than one, and three are somewhat better than two.
The Internet abounds with advice on how to launder a cloth mask. However, if it’s not soiled you could rotate several masks as described above rather than launder each after a single wearing. The virus becomes inactive on cloth as fast or faster than on paper.
Every mask protects others from your cough or sneeze. However, the mask only protects you if it seals well, so that you’re breathing through it rather than around it. To verify the fit, make sure that it snuggles against your skin when you inhale. Many cloth masks are not shaped to fit closely, or do not have a bendable stiffener to mold them close to your nose. Such masks short-change your safety for the mask maker’s convenience.
If you are under 25 and have no older family members to infect, your short-term health is pretty secure no matter what you do. But if you’re anyone else in our society, a COVID-19 mask may be a useful tool in your wardrobe. Wear a mask, somewhere, anywhere, and you may save a life. Perhaps, your own!
– Vote mask adapted from Vote by netalloy and Mask by j4p4n on openclipart.org
– Coronavirus illustration from CDC/ Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAM at U.S. Centers for Disease Control