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Face masks: Know your options

Stanley Martin, M.D.

Pennsylvania has done a great job at bringing the number of cases of COVID-19 down in our state. It’s why our counties have gone green, and we should all be patting ourselves on the back for a job well-done. COVID isn’t gone, though. We still have new cases every day. And if we aren’t careful, the number of infections will surge again and all our counties will go back to yellow and even red. You may be tired of COVID — believe me, I am too — but like it or not, we still need to deal with it. Taking care of ourselves and each other is the best bet for our future. Studies have shown that wearing a face mask is probably the single most important thing you can do in public to help stop the spread of COVID-19.

With Gov. Tom Wolf’s mask-wearing order now in effect, requiring state residents to wear a mask in public, it’s important to be aware of which face masks are the right option for you — and which ones aren’t.

This is key: Wearing the right face mask protects not only you, but everyone around you.

From homemade cloth face masks to N95 masks, here’s what you need to know.

How does a face mask work?

When worn correctly (covering both your mouth and your nose), a face mask protects against illness in two ways.

It helps keep you from inhaling droplets that travel through the air. And when you exhale, it also keeps you from accidentally spreading the virus – which you can have without knowing it. That’s why masks play an essential role in protection during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Like most respiratory viruses, including the flu or a cold, COVID-19 spreads through:

— Droplets traveling through the air by coughing or sneezing.

— Close personal contact, such as touching or shaking hands.

— Touching an object or surface with the virus on it.

The best thing to do is wear a face mask anytime you leave your home, and in fact it’s mandated that you wear one in public places.

MASKING WHEN YOU VISIT THE DOCTOR

All of our medical personnel are wearing masks and taking extra steps to protect our patients, communities and themselves. And we’re requiring that patients and visitors wear masks, too.

But not all masks are created equal — some are better for use by medical professionals, for example.

KNOW YOUR MASKS

N95 masks — While they offer the most protection, an N95 mask should be reserved for frontline healthcare workers and others on the front lines. These are the people who are working closely to treat those with COVID-19, so protecting them from getting sick will help to slow or prevent the spread of the virus.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that N95 masks with a valve will allow you to spread the virus to others if you are a carrier — and many carriers have no symptoms. While the valve apparatus will protect you from inhaling the virus, droplets will still enter the air whenever you exhale — which means you’ll be spreading your droplets through the air and onto surfaces.

Surgical masks– Surgical masks also offer some of the best protection, but if you don’t already have some, you don’t need to buy any. These masks should also be saved for hospitals and healthcare providers to distribute to their patients and employees.

If you do have surgical masks on hand, know that they are single-use and should be disposed of after you wear them.

DIY cloth masks — The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that everyone wear a cloth face mask. With plenty of tutorials online, you can make your own with items you have around your house.

The best part? They can be re-worn. All you need to do is hand-wash them, let them dry and wear them again.

Adults and children over the age of 2 should wear face masks, according to the CDC.

HOW TO USE A MASK

Making sure your mask fits properly is just as important as choosing the right mask.

Every time you put on or remove your mask, wash your hands with soap and water, or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol. When you put your mask on, it should come up over your nose, and it shouldn’t slide down when you talk.

There are plenty of ways you can protect yourself from getting sick, and from getting others sick:

— Wear your face mask whenever you go out in public.

— Practice social distancing. Don’t shake hands, avoid crowds and stay at least 6 feet away from others.

— Wash your hands — often. And for at least 20 seconds. Alcohol-based sanitizers and wipes are with at least 60% alcohol are good, too.

— Avoid touching your face, especially your mouth, nose and eyes.

— Cover your mouth and nose when coughing and sneezing so you won’t spread virus droplets.

— Keep surfaces clean and disinfected at your home, school and workplace.

— If you’re sick, stay home from work or school, rest and drink lots of fluids.

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Stanley Martin, M.D. is Geisinger’s director of infectious diseases.

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