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COVID-19: How and Why to Wear a Mask

As of this writing, the COVID-19 pandemic has been with us for a year. There have been nearly 25 million cases in the United States — almost 74,000 new cases in the last week alone. Tragically, we have now lost more than 500,000 lives.

While it’s wonderful that some COVID-19 vaccines have now been approved, wearing a mask remains one of the most crucial things we can all do to help slow the spread of SARS-COv-2, the coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Why? Because the virus is primarily transmitted through respiratory droplets that an infected person exhales. They are usually invisible, but when it’s cold and dry enough in the winter you will sometimes “see your breath” when the droplets condense as they hit the air. These minuscule droplets can easily travel up to six feet, and under some circumstances can even be carried much farther.

Wearing a mask correctly prevents these droplets from escaping — and also helps stop droplets exhaled by other people from getting into your body through your nose and mouth.

That means if you are infected, you won’t breathe virus into the air around you; and if you’re not infected, you’ll have some protection from virus lingering in the air. But creating a tight seal is important because gaps can allow some droplets to get in and out.

Face Mask Do’s and Don’ts

Face masks only work if you wear the right kind, and wear them correctly. Here are some do’s and don’ts to help you protect yourself and the people around you.

Do:

  • Wear either disposable or reusable masks that fit snugly around your nose and mouth — especially around the top bony part of your nose. There should be no gaps for air to get in or out except through the mask itself.
  • Make sure there’s a flexible metal strip to help create a proper seal across the bridge of your nose. Disposable masks usually have these. Some reusable masks have them too; and if they don’t, you can buy metal strips to add to them. Now, I know some of you are saying, “whenever I wear a face mask it makes my glasses fog up.” If that happens, you’re not wearing it right! When there’s a tight enough seal, your breath can’t escape through the top of the mask and fog up your glasses.
  • If you’re wearing a reusable cloth mask, make sure it has at least two layers. Otherwise, it doesn’t filter out enough droplets to help protect you or others. And in fact, the CDC now says that double masking, such as wearing a cloth mask over a surgical mask, can offer even more protection against COVID-19 infection than a single mask. So it appears that the more layers, the better.
  • Get masks that fit your face well and you can wear and breathe in comfortably without adjusting constantly.
  • Get plenty of masks and put them where you can conveniently access them – by the front door, in your car, in your purse…
  • If you wear a cloth mask, make sure to wash it after each use.
  • Wash or sanitize your hands after touching or removing your mask.
  • Continue to keep six feet of distance between you and other people whenever you can, even if you are both masked.

For a more in-depth discussion of mask discomfort issues, see my post on “Mask Discomfort — And What To Do About It.”

Don’t:

  • Don’t just put a bandanna or your winter scarf around your face. These cannot create an effective seal to keep virus in or out.
  • Don’t wear just a plastic face shield. There’s no evidence that face shields offer any protection by themselves. If you choose to wear one, wear it in addition to a face mask.
  • Don’t wear a mask with a valve on it. These are designed to protect you from getting infected by other people … but they won’t protect other people from you if you’re
  • Don’t wear your mask under your nose or under your chin. In order to do any good, it must snugly cover both your nose and your mouth.
  • Don’t touch your mask without washing your hands afterwards.

In Addition to Wearing a Mask:

  • Wash your hands frequently, with warm water and soap, for at least 20 seconds.
  • If warm water and soap aren’t available, use hand sanitizer frequently. I carry some with me wherever I go.
  • Don’t touch your face unless you’ve just washed your hands!
  • Maintain a physical distance of at least six feet from anyone who doesn’t live in your home.

How Much Longer Do We Need to Keep Wearing Masks?

I’ve already explained that wearing face masks is a crucial way to protect yourself and the people around you. Aside from getting vaccinated when you have the opportunity, it’s the single most important thing you can do to help control the spread of the virus and keep you and your loved ones safe.

Until You Get Vaccinated

COVID-19 vaccines are being rolled out in stages, given first to the people who need them most. As more doses are manufactured, more people will be able to get them.

If you haven’t been vaccinated yet, do get vaccinated when it’s your turn; these vaccines are quite effective in keeping you from getting sick. (If you’ve ever had a bad reaction to a vaccine before, or if you are immunocompromised in some way, ask your doctor whether getting vaccinated is a good idea for you.)

In the meantime, wearing a mask, washing your hands often, and maintaining enough physical distance from other people are the best tools we have for reducing your risk.

After You Get Vaccinated

Yes, you still need to wear a mask — and wash your hands and keep your distance — after you’ve received the COVID-19 vaccine! Here’s why:

  • Two of the currently available vaccines need to be administered in two doses to be fully effective. Make sure you get both doses.
  • After your final dose, it still takes a few weeks for your body’s immune system to be completely ready to fight off the coronavirus.
  • We still don’t know if getting vaccinated can prevent you from getting infected with the virus and spreading it to others. We only know that it will protect you from getting severe symptoms yourself.

For more information about being fully vaccinated, visit the CDC’s website.

So, When Will It Be Safe to Stop Wearing a Mask?

We hope that mass vaccination will ultimately stop the spread of COVID-19, but there are a lot of unknowns. How long will it take to reach that point? How long will the vaccines’ protection last? How rapidly will COVID-19 mutate, so the vaccines will have to keep getting updated to provide immunity?

Hopefully COVID-19 will be much less of a problem by this autumn, and we’ll be able to resume a lot of our previous activities like eating in restaurants, going to the movies, and going to sporting events and other kinds of live entertainment.

But masks, distancing, and frequent hand washing may be with us for quite some time. They may even be the norm from this point onward. (In parts of Asia, many people have been wearing masks in public since the 1950s!) So maybe it’s time to invest in masks that are as comfortable as possible, and get used to having them on in public.

More COVID-19 Information Sources

Independence has a lot of resources to help you navigate this pandemic. Here are just a few:

Stephen Higgins MD, FAAP

About Stephen Higgins MD, FAAP

Dr Higgins graduated from Hahnemann Medical School (now Drexel University College of Medicine) in 1989 and went on to train as a Pediatrician and Neonatologist at DuPont Hospital for Children/Thomas Jefferson University Hospital. He spent most of his career as a Neonatologist at Crozer Chester Medical Center where he worked clinically in neonatal intensive care. He was actively involved in medical education rising to the level of Associate Dean at Crozer for Temple Medical School and more recently as the Associate Dean for Drexel’s Clinical Campus at Crozer. In addition to his role as Associate Dean, was the Chief Academic Officer and Pediatric Residency Director at Crozer before joining the Independence Blue Cross family in April of 2019.