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Published on May 08, 2020

Why you should wear a face mask

Face Mask COVID19

To decrease the spread of COVID-19, Gov. Charlie Baker has issued an order that all Massachusetts residents should wear face coverings in public, when we can’t keep the proper social distance.

But don’t let a face mask make you over-confident, said Dr. Ana Paula Oppenheimer, MD, MPH, an infectious disease expert with Cape Cod Healthcare.

A face mask is not enough protection in itself, she said. We have to practice the other important strategies: social distancing and washing our hands properly. “The mask itself doesn’t do too much,“ she said. “It works in combination with the other measures and hand hygiene is definitely, definitely, the most important one.”

Unless it’s an N95 medical mask -- reserved for healthcare professionals -- a face-covering is less a barrier against other people’s germs than a way to keep your COVID-19 virus and other germs from spreading to others, she said.

“They’re not necessarily masks the way we understood medical masks before - surgical masks,” she said. “But they keep the germs with the person. They prevent the person from spreading their germs to someone else.”

Why is wearing a face mask important?

Latest research suggests that even if you don’t have symptoms, you could still spread COVID-19. A recent editorial in the New England Journal of Medicine cited a study in which 27 out of 48 patients who tested positive in one Washington state nursing home were asymptomatic.

“The number of people who seem to have been infected is much higher than what you’d expect,” Dr. Oppenheimer said. “There was a bigger pool of people who were never sick, but they do have the antibodies.

“I would recommend wearing the mask because we never know who came before us at a place, and we never know who’s coming after us. We must be mindful of ourselves and be mindful of others.”

Another reason for wearing a mask: When it comes to social distancing, even 6 feet might not always be safe. A recent study by scientists in Belgium and the Netherlands found respiration droplets in the slipstream more than 30 feet behind runners, depending on the wind conditions. Subjects who were walking quickly left a trail more than 15 feet behind them. The researchers suggest that we avoid being directly behind each other as we exercise or that we keep the appropriate distance.

Cyclists should probably keep a distance of 65 feet between themselves if they are riding single file, Dr. Oppenheimer said.

“The social distancing limits [of 6 feet] are rules for people who are basically still,” she said. “I’m sitting here and you’re sitting there, 6 feet apart. It’s different if we’re moving in the environment and breathing in and out.”

She concedes it’s difficult to wear a mask and breathe properly while running or biking. So, she suggests anyone doing aerobic exercise try to go at a time or place less likely to be crowded.

How do I wear a face mask?

The Centers for Disease Control has guidelines on masks and instructions on how to make them by sewing or folding fabric to create multiple layers. Some community groups, such as senior centers and houses of worship, have been offering homemade masks at low cost.

Any face covering should hug your face but allow you to breathe easily. Children under 2 should not wear masks, nor should anyone with breathing issues, or who is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

Here are other mask dos and don’ts from the CDC, Dr. Oppenheimer and state departments of health:

  • Do clean your hands with alcohol-based sanitizer or soap and water before putting on your mask.
  • Do fit the mask snugly around your mouth and nose. If it has a metal wire, squeeze it around the bridge of your nose.
  • Do avoid touching the mask except on the straps while wearing it! if you touch the fabric, wash your hands with soap and water or sanitizer.
  • Do wash your cloth mask after each use or dispose of paper masks. Pressing with a hot iron after washing should also disinfect masks, Dr. Oppenheimer said.
  • Don’t wear a mask that’s damp or wet from spit or mucus.
  • Don’t touch any part of the mask except the straps when you take off.
  • Do wash your hands with soap and water or sanitizer after removing it.