The CDC finally issued guidance to Use of Cloth Face Coverings to Help Slow the Spread of COVID-19. If you go out in public, please wear a “Cloth Face Covering.”
I’m using every ounce of energy that I have to avoid talking about the politics of any of this. Rather, I’m focusing on actionable things with clear reasoning for them.
Before I explain why this is so important, here are two websites that clarify the types of face coverings I’m talking about. Specifically, these are homemade (or DIY) cloth face coverings.
Colorado Mask Project: Provide all Coloradans with DIY masks to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
You do not need an N95 mask. You do not need a surgical mask. You do not need a mask you buy in the store. You just need a cloth face covering that you can make yourself at home.
There has been endless discussion about the efficacy of masks in general, and more specifically for “the public.” There are plenty of recent credible discussions about this from sources like the American Association for the Advancement of Science (Would everyone wearing face masks help us slow the pandemic?). Feel free to wade through all that stuff, but here’s the punch line.
The Main Benefit: If you are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic, you can spread the virus to healthy people. This means that even if you don’t have symptoms, you are sick and can spread the virus to others. When you are wearing a mask, it helps prevent you from spreading the virus to others. The virus spreads through droplets coming from your mouth and nose. If your mouth and nose are covered, the cloth mask catches the droplets when you sneeze, cough, breathe, and talk.
Secondary Benefit: We touch our faces thousands of times a day. The virus lives on surfaces for a long time (possibly up to 72 hours) and in the air for an indeterminate amount of time. We are constantly touching things the virus settles on. Then, when we touch our face (especially our eyes, nose, or mouth), we infect ourselves. A mask lowers the propensity for us to touch our own face (it’s an interesting psychological phenomenon).
Tertiary (and unclear) Benefit: A debate rages on about whether a cloth mask acts as an effective physical barrier to breathing in the virus. If it does, with any level of efficacy, this is merely a bonus to the first two benefits.
I think the best paragraph from the Science article Would everyone wearing face masks help us slow the pandemic? is:
But the greatest benefit of masking the masses, Cowling and others argue, likely comes not from shielding the mouths of the healthy but from covering the mouths of people already infected. People who feel ill aren’t supposed to go out at all, but initial evidence suggests people without symptoms may also transmit the coronavirus without knowing they’re infected. Data from contact-tracing efforts—in which researchers monitor the health of people who recently interacted with someone confirmed to have an infection—suggest nearly half of SARS-CoV-2 transmissions occur before the infected person shows symptoms. And some seem to contract and clear the virus without ever feeling sick.
Right now, you have no way to know if you are infected when you aren’t showing symptoms, and given that it’s springtime in the US many people will have allergies so it’s even harder to tell who is sick. Given the completely inadequate testing activities right now in the US, along with lack of contact tracing apps, effective isolation for people who are sick, and the overall challenge of getting everyone to actually stay at home, by wearing a mask in public, you are protecting other people from you in case you are infected.
Finally, please do not buy or use medical-grade masks. There is still a huge shortage of these in the health care system and it’s expected that the shortage will continue. You’ll hear phrases like “surgical masks” and “N95 masks.” You do not need to wear one of these – they are needed for our front line medical workers.
Instead, make your own mask. And wear it whenever you leave your house.