When and how to use a mask

corona, coronavirus, mask

Face masks have become a hotly debated topic in the time of the coronavirus pandemic. Fears over developing COVID-19, the respiratory illness the virus causes, led people to hoard masks earlier this year, leading to significant shortages for medical workers. Major health organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the WHO, have urged people up to only use masks if they are ill, so as not to spread the virus to others, or if you are a health care provider.

That wisdom still stands, but the CDC released new guidelines on April 3 recommending everyone in the US wear nonmedical face coverings outside the home. This recommendation is voluntary and does not replace current social distancing and hygiene measures. Prior to the CDC’s announcement, New York City, Los Angeles, the San Francisco Bay Area and the state of Colorado advised residents to use face coverings when leaving the house.

Let’s break down what each of these kinds of protective measures mean. There are two kinds of protective gear being talked about here: medical-grade masks and nonmedical face coverings.

Medical-grade masks include disposable surgical face masks and N95 respirators. Surgical face masks are used to block large particles and respiratory droplets (which are sent into the air when someone coughs or sneezes) from entering or exiting your mouth. Tight-fitting N95 respirator masks are designed to filter smoke, small particles and airborne viruses. 

Nonmedical face coverings include reusable cloth masks, bandanas and scarves, and are used in the same way as a surgical mask, to protect you against large particles and respiratory droplets. However, this kind of protective covering must be cleaned between uses and is generally not used in a medical setting.

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