The Covid-19 pandemic has created a global health emergency that has fundamentally shifted so much about the way we engage in society. Stay at home recommendations and social distancing guidelines have been important components of the global approach to limiting disease transmission. However, inconsistent information has, in part, contributed to confusion around a topic of great importance in this fight — the benefits of wearing masks to control the spread of the virus. I’ve taken some time to summarize some of the most relevant information on this topic to clearly show that — yes — wearing a mask is a key part of fighting this pandemic.

Official recommendations

First, let me address some of the early confusion surrounding mask use and how official recommendations have been updated as more information has become available. In the early days of the pandemic, some official health organizations were not recommending the use of masks. This recommendation, ultimately, stemmed from a lack of information as to how effective masks would be for the general population to combat virus transmission. It was also born out of a desire to ensure frontline medical personnel had access to masks in order to allow them to continue treating patients while minimizing their risk of falling ill.

We now know much more about how this virus spreads, and new recommendations have emerged from health organizations emphasizing the importance of masks in slowing this pandemic. Masks are now required in many public areas and are considered an important part of a cohesive public health strategy alongside other measures such as handwashing and social distancing. Do not be confused by the shift in guidelines as information emerged, health organizations around the world are now in agreement that wearing masks can help slow the spread of Covid-19 and can, therefore, help to save lives.

Mask types

At this point, many people have heard of N95 masks. These masks are recommended for medical workers directly interacting with infected patients. This is because N95 masks are designed to filter out both large and small particles, making them adept at handling filtration in situations where there may be a high concentration of viral particles in the environment. As the name might imply, such masks are designed to filter out 95% of particulates. Some N95 masks are manufactured with a valve that allows unfiltered air to escape the mask upon exhalation. These masks are not considered appropriate by many organizations for slowing the spread of Covid-19 since they do not protect others from an infected individual wearing such a mask.

In most cases, the types of masks recommended for general usage are cloth coverings or face masks made from cloth or similar materials. These masks can be handmade or purchased from retailers, however, they must possess a few characteristics to be considered appropriate for usage to slow virus transmission. Masks must cover both the user’s face and mouth and must be fitted to conform closely to the user’s face. An ill-fitting mask can allow air transmission around its sides, allowing unfiltered air to pass into the environment, defeating the purpose of the device. Correct fit can be achieved through properly tightened straps and a well-tailored mask shape.

How masks work

In the case of Covid-19, one of the primary means of virus transmission is through the air. This type of transmission occurs when viral particles are exhaled by an infected individual and become airborne. Viral particles that are then inhaled by another individual can cause the second person to contract the illness. This process can occur even if the first individual is not showing symptoms. Indeed, some studies have indicated that viral load is highest in a person the day before they show symptoms.

While viral particles are smaller than the holes in a cloth mask, these masks are still effective for helping to stop the spread of the virus. Why’s that? It’s because one of the primary ways that viral particles end up in the air is through exhaled saliva droplets. These droplets, if unimpeded, travel into the air containing a high load of viral particles. When these droplets evaporate, the viral particles are then suspended in the air. A cloth mask can block these droplets as they’re exhaled, keeping them from evaporating into the air and protecting other individuals from inhaling viral particles.

Masks and social distancing

Masks can be especially effective when combined with other practices such as social distancing. As noted above, masks can help stop droplets containing the virus from entering the air and evaporating. They can also help to minimize the distance that such an exhalation might cover. When an unmasked individual exhales, especially a cough, their concentrated breath can carry quite far — upwards of 30 feet by some estimations. The breath of a masked individual, by contrast, is contained to a much smaller area — several inches to 3 feet 7 inches depending on the material the mask is made of. This was recently published in the Journal of Physics and Fluids.

From this information, it is plain to see the sense in social distancing recommendations, which advocate that people stand 6 feet apart from each other. When practiced along with proper mask usage, such guidelines can help to drastically reduce the spread of the virus. Other guidelines such as proper hand washing and stay at home recommendations can also aid in this fight. These guidelines are important whether or not you are showing symptoms since that is no guarantee that you are not a carrier.

The impact of Covid-19 has been felt extensively across the world. In order to slow the spread of this disease, and in the process save lives, we must all take certain precautions recommended by health organizations at many different levels. One important component of this ongoing battle is the need to wear masks when in public. As we’ve seen above, proper mask usage can help to slow the transmission of viral particles into the air and, thus, help to reduce the chances of individuals becoming infected. Wear masks in public, practice social distancing, wash your hands frequently, and limit exposure to others. With these guidelines, we can all do our part to weather this storm together.

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