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A quick guide to masks for COVID-19



The novel coronavirus, which causes the disease known as COVID-19, is transmitted by very small particles,  called droplets or aerosols, that can hang in the air. From a cough or a sneeze, these particles can travel up to six feet between people, possibly more, and a recent study found this virus can live in the air for up to three hours. Masks, when properly fitted, can collect these particles and prevent them from being transmitted to others.

If you have symptoms of illness, you can wear a mask to protect others from your germs. Considering the spread of coronavirus, this is encouraged even among well people, as people can transmit this disease even without symptoms, or prior to developing symptoms.

However, a mask is not a silver bullet in stopping the transmission of disease. “The best ways to protect yourself from any disease transmission is to wash your hands for 20 seconds with soap and water, use hand sanitizer when soap and water are not available and do not touch your face,” said Paul Suits, director of infection control at Upstate Medical University. Additionally, “take extra care to disinfect high-touch surfaces in your home and car as well as your cell phone to reduce transmission of disease,” Suits said.

Wearing a mask is not a substitute for these good hygiene practices and social distancing.

Masks are now required in most public places throughout our region.

In some cases of widespread disease, like COVID-19, officials will request or require people to wear a mask when in public as an added precaution to be used in conjunction with good hygiene and social distancing.

There are different kinds of masks:

A surgical mask is standard in hospital operating rooms. It is a flat rectangle made of thin, paperlike material, for one-time use only. This mask fits loosely around your nose, mouth and chin. It is intended to be worn by a health care professional to catch the bacteria from the wearer’s mouth and nose and to protect against contact with any splashes, sprays or splatters. Surgical masks are not designed to protect the wearer from inhaling airborne bacteria or virus particles.

N95 and N99 masks are intended for health care and other professionals exposed to airborne particles. These masks are made of a firm, clothlike filter material certified to block 95% or 99% of all particles and are designed to seal tightly around the mouth and nose. More substantial than a surgical mask, the rounded respirator is shaped like a small bowl to seal to your face, and the filtering action removes tiny particles from the air when you breathe in. “We need to preserve the supply of surgical and N95 masks for our frontline health care workers,” Suits said. Homemade cloth masks do not create more competition for surgical or N95 masks, which are currently in high demand by health care providers.

Homemade cloth masks, bandannas, scarves and other fabric-based coverings are more effective at keeping your germs from others, than from protecting you from others’ germs. “These are not medical-grade protective equipment,” said Suits. But some research indicates a snug-fitting cloth mask could be more effective than covering a cough with your elbow or hand. Additionally, it would keep your germs in your mask until you choose to touch it.

Cloth masks are more effective with thicker fabric and a snug fit to the face covering the nose and mouth. It’s important to wear your mask for the duration of your public outing and to resist the urge to remove or adjust the mask with unsanitized hands. Cloth masks are not appropriate for use in health care settings, as they do not have the same filter efficiency as surgical or N95 masks. If you are employed by, or are a patient or visitor at, any Upstate facility, please leave your homemade mask at home or in the car before entering. “These masks do not offer the same protection as the masks that will be given to you, and your homemade masks may be bringing more germs into a health care facility,” said Suits.

Good mask hygiene

-- Wash your hands with soap and water or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol before putting on the mask.

-- Cover your nose and mouth with the mask and make sure no gaps exist between it and your face.

-- Avoid touching the mask while using it. Touching the front of your mask, which is exposed to the environment, can defeat the purpose of using it.

-- If you do touch your mask, wash or sanitize your hands immediately. Touching the mask could expose you to possible virus on its outer surface.

-- If you wear glasses, you may find them fogging up even with a snug-fitting mask. Try washing your glasses with soapy water and shake off the excess. Let them air dry or gently dry off the lenses with a soft cloth before putting them back on. The soap should help cut the fog when wearing your mask.

-- Mask or no mask, avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. Practice physical distancing to avoid contact with anyone who might be ill or become ill. Because the coronavirus can exist on surfaces, clean and disinfect surfaces daily, including your cell phone.

-- If you are feeling unwell, contact your primary care physician and stay home.