Submitted by Lewis County Public Health & Social Services
I wear a face mask in public. As a physician for more than 30 years, wearing a mask is no mystery to me, nor are the reasons to wear them. While their purpose is perfectly clear to me, it may not be true for the general public, especially since recommendations related to COVID-19 have changed over time.
The label “mask” gets used interchangeably, which encourages confusion. Let’s sort that out first:
- N95 Respirator: a medical-grade mask that seals on the wearer’s face and designed to prevent the wearer from inhaling potentially harmful things down to the size of a virus. It is not designed to block things being exhaled by the wearer, but wearing one can reduce spreading saliva and respiratory fluids to others..
- Surgical mask: a medical-grade mask designed to trap harmful things the wearer may exhale. It also prevents some harmful things from being inhaled.
- Cloth face mask: a multi-layer cloth covering that traps airborne fluids the wearer exhales. It also prevents some potentially harmful things from being inhaled, but not as effectively as the other two masks.
At first, people were discouraged from wearing face masks due to a shortage of medical-grade respirators and surgical masks. We needed to preserve scarce supplies to protect the doctors, nurses, and first responders who were treating patients. We also did not know enough yet about this brand-new disease to offer educated recommendations to the public. In effect, what we were saying was to save the supplies for the lifesavers we knew needed them.
Now we are advising everyone to wear cloth masks. What changed? Our knowledge. The one constant about this novel coronavirus is that it is novel. We still don’t know very much about it – how it affects people, how to prevent it, or how to cure it. We do know it spreads mostly through airborne droplets. We also know that people can exhale contagious droplets before they feel sick themselves.
That means anything we can do to prevent a contagious droplet from passing from one person to another is a winning strategy. That is why cloth face coverings are in vogue, along with maintaining six feet of distance from others. Between the mask trapping droplets and the physical distancing, the risk of spreading the virus from you to another person becomes much lower.
Once you put on a mask, it is easy to mistake its purpose. You feel resistance as you inhale which can make you think it is protecting you. To some extent, it might be. Keep in mind however, its real purpose is to protect others by filtering what you exhale. Any virus trapped in your mask cannot make you sicker as some suggest because you are already infected.
While we still don’t know exactly how COVID-19 ticks, we do know from decades of experience that viruses require human assistance to spread. We know that non-pharmaceutical interventions can stop viruses in their tracks. We also know that any one intervention by itself is not nearly as effective as using several at a time. That is why we keep asking people to wash their hands, keep 6 feet apart, clean surfaces, stay home if they feel sick, AND wear a mask.
And while you’re wearing it, resist the urge to be the mask police. When I see someone not wearing a mask, it’s none of my business how they live their lives. I just make sure I stay more than 6 feet away from them.
Bottom line for me – I wear a face mask. I know it offers no guarantees. However, there’s ample evidence to suggest it can help, and that’s good enough for me.
For current information on COVID-19 in Lewis County, follow @LCPHSS on Twitter and visit https://phsscovid19.lewiscountywa.gov/.