There's been a lot of confusion, so here's what the CDC currently says.
When an outbreak like COVID-19 happens, it can be hard to keep up with all the updates, recommendations, and data-driven findings. With a novel virus like this, everyone is trying to make the best decisions with the best information available at the time. One of the biggest questions people are asking right now is, "So am I supposed to wear a face mask or not?"
Originally, the CDC advised against face masks except for people who are sick and in public (such as while going to the hospital), for healthy people who are taking care of an infected person at home, and for healthcare workers.
However, on April 3, 2020, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reversed its previous stance against wearing face masks for the general public. While medical masks like the N-95 mask should still be saved for healthcare workers, the CDC now advises "in light of new evidence" that all persons should wear "cloth face coverings in public settings." You might have even heard your own governor or mayor recently echoing this guideline to you and your community.
Why the change? Recent evidence supports the theory that a significant portion of infected people are either asymptomatic (not having any symptoms), or they infect others before their symptoms have developed. After all, early statistics show that it can take up to 14 days after infection for COVID-19 symptoms to appear.
In order to get the most benefits from a cloth face covering, here's what you should know, according to the CDC and the World Health Organization (WHO).
1. A cloth face covering helps prevent the transmission of infectious droplets
If you have a respiratory infection (such as COVID-19 or the seasonal flu), you can emit infectious droplets when you talk, sneeze, or cough. These can travel up to 6 feet, so others near you can breathe this in and become infected. That’s where the face masks and cloth face coverings come in handy: by helping to obstruct this transmission of infectious droplets.
2. Wearing a mask or cloth face covering does not replace social distancing
One reason public health experts hesitated to recommend masks and face coverings is that it can create a false sense of security. Once you have a mask on, you might feel more comfortable ditching the 6-foot rule. However, it is critical to continue following social distancing practices, such as staying at home unless absolutely necessary, and maintaining 6 feet of distance between you and others when in public.
Social distancing is especially important for at-risk individuals who have one or more risk factors for serious symptoms of COVID-19. This includes older adults, people with chronic health issues (like heart disease or diabetes), or people with compromised immune systems.
3. Save the surgical masks for the healthcare workers
Remember, the CDC is not recommending N-95 respirators or surgical masks for the general public. At the moment, these are in short supply and must be saved for healthcare workers. (Got N-95 or other personal protective equipment (PPE) in your possession? Find out how to donate face masks to healthcare workers.)
Instead, you can help protect yourself with items such as bandanas, scarves, flour sack towels, or one of the old T-shirts in the back of your dresser. Check out the CDC's guide to making your own cloth face covering here.
4. Continue to wash your hands frequently
A mask or cloth face covering is only beneficial if it’s used properly and in combination with good hygiene practices. Whether or not you’re wearing a mask, be sure to wash hands with soap and water for at least 20 seconds regularly, especially:
- Before eating
- After going to the bathroom
- After coughing, sneezing, or blowing your nose
- After caring for or contact with someone who is sick
- Before putting on a face mask or covering
- After removing and discarding a face mask or covering
If a sink is not available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Either way, be sure to get those easy-to-miss areas of the hands, such as the back of the hands, the fingertips, in between the fingers, and the wrists. Here are common handwashing mistakes that might put you at risk of COVID-19.
5. Use your cloth face covering properly
It's true that these fabrics can't filter out infectious droplets as well as an N-95 respirator, but they can help, especially if you use them properly. Ideally, a cloth face covering should be able to fit snuggly but comfortably, be secured either by ties or ear loops, have multiple layers of fabric, allow you to breathe effectively, and be washable without causing damage.
6. Yes, you need to wash your cloth face covering regularly
The CDC recommends routinely washing your cloth face covering "depending on the frequency of use." This can be done in a washing machine and dryer.
Remember, wearing a cloth face covering is meant to supplement, not replace, the other preventative habits to reduce the spread of COVID-19, such as washing hands regularly and limiting face-to-face contact. Continue to follow the recommendations of the CDC and your local governments, such as staying home and avoiding large gatherings, for the best protection.