Submitted by the Washington State Department of Health
The Secretary of Health announced a statewide public health order requiring us to wear masks in public which went into effect June 26. So, how much do we really know about how much a cloth face covering can protect us from COVID-19? So much more than before!
Prior to this pandemic, there wasn’t a whole lot of research going on into the benefit of wearing cloth face coverings to prevent COVID-19, which, of course, we didn’t even know about until six months ago. Some researchers compared countries that promoted face masks as part of their early response to COVID-19 to countries, like the US, that did not. The countries that promoted face masks ended up with fewer cases than the countries that did not. Research is continuing, and we’re still learning more, but here’s what the science is telling us now:
• COVID-19 be spread by people who do not know they have it (yet).
• Having COVID-19 and not having any symptoms feels the same as feeling “healthy” or “normal.” The difference is, with COVID-19, you are contagious.
• The virus that causes COVID-19 is principally spread by droplets that you exhale when you are normally breathing, as well as when you talking, singing, coughing or sneezing. These droplets can float in the air and infect people who are near you.
• These droplets are more likely to reach other people if you are in an indoor space with poor ventilation and within 6 feet of other people.
• A cloth face-covering helps you keep your breath, and those droplets, to yourself. You are even more likely to keep all those droplets to yourself if you are also standing six feet away from other people. And it works even better if the people around you are also wearing cloth face coverings.
Researchers reviewed the scientific literature looking at the effectiveness of surgical masks and cloth face coverings. They found that the masks and cloth face coverings were effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 — if we wear them! The biggest limitation to their effectiveness was inconsistent mask use.
This means that people who feel healthy need to wear a cloth face-covering in public places — especially indoors — and stay at least six feet away from other people.
We’re going to be covering our faces for a while. Gather up the good masks and make sure they are clean or put them in the washing machine. Throw away the ones that fall off your face or itch or you otherwise don’t like. Remember, in a pinch, a couple of layers of any cloth will do. Now let’s sort through some myths and facts about cloth face coverings:
Myth: I feel great! I don’t need to wear a mask.
Fact: Do you know how it feels to have COVID-19 and not have any symptoms? It feels great! Having COVID-19 and having no symptoms feels the same as feeling “healthy” or “normal.” The difference is, with COVID-19, you feel great and can make other people very sick. The decision to wear a cloth face covering isn’t about how well you might feel — it’s about all of us working together to keep the whole community healthy.
Myth: If we wear masks, we don’t have to worry about social distance anymore!
Fact: We are wearing cloth face coverings to help us keep our breath, and the potentially infections droplets it contains, to ourselves. Face coverings are just one way to do that, and they work even better if you are also standing six feet away from other people. Physical distancing, hand washing, staying home if we are sick, and getting tested for COVID-19 even if we have just mild symptoms are all important basic things we still need to do, even if we cover our faces.
Myth: If you wear a mask for too long your oxygen levels will go down/you’ll breathe too much carbon dioxide.
Fact: Cloth face coverings are by no means airtight. Your oxygen and carbon dioxide levels will be fine. Your face covering may feel irritatingly hard to breathe through, though. You are most likely getting enough air, but switch to a different face covering if you find the one you are using physically hard to breathe through. If you feel dizzy or lightheaded, or have trouble breathing, sit down and remove your face covering. If it continues, call 911.
Myth: Wearing a mask can weaken your immune system.
Fact: The idea behind this myth is more or less that the mask will insulate you from all germs, and your immune system will get used to not having any germs to fight and get weaker. That’s not exactly how immune systems work, and it’s definitely not how masks work. A cloth face-covering does a better job at helping you keep your germs to yourself than it does protect you from other people’s germs. (Remember? My mask protects you. Your mask protects me.) We do think that wearing a mask will probably protect you a little bit from some respiratory germs that you might otherwise breathe in, but not any of the germs you get exposed to by eating or drinking or petting the dog, or playing outside, or going to the bathroom. Wear the mask. You will still get exposed to plenty of germs, and your immune system will be fine.
Myth: Wearing a mask can cause bacterial lung infections.
Fact: Your body has lots of ways to protect you if you breathe in bacteria, and there is no evidence that wearing a mask can make you sick. You could get skin irritation or rash, so it’s certainly a good idea to keep your face covering clean and dry, and keep your face clean and well moisturized. If you have found a particular face-covering irritating, consider whether you may react to the soap you used to wash it or the particular type of fabric. To prevent skin irritations or acne, you may want to avoid wearing makeup underneath your mask. Switch to a different face covering if the one you are wearing gets damp.
Get your information from credible sources like these:
Practice compassion. We cover our faces to protect other people. We could still have COVID-19 even if we feel well. It’s our responsibility to protect others from what we don’t know is in our breath.