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Masks in the time of COVID-19

Through January, as this pandemic has evolved there have been mixed recommendations about wearing masks from the CDC and WHO. This is because we are still learning a lot about the SARS-CoV-2 strain of the coronavirus and the COVID disease itself.

Why masks:

The new recommendation of wearing cloth coverings for the general public was made given the new emerging facts based on small studies that 25% of the people infected with the virus are asymptomatic. Moreover, a new small study found that the virus strain may be most infectious when symptoms are mildest, meaning that people may be spreading the virus before realizing they have it.

Coronavirus mainly spreads through respiratory droplets ( bigger respiratory particles) when someone coughs or sneezes. It is also thought to be partially airborne ( very small particles that can linger in the air for prolonged periods of time). A mask provides a physical barrier between the virus and your respiratory tract.

Different types of masks:

1. Cloth masks: Different cloth materials used in daily life can be used to sew these masks at home.
2. Surgical masks: These are mainly used in hospital setting by employees or provided to visitors at hospitals.
3. N95 maks: these should be reserved for healthcare workers. These masks filter out the smallest of the particles and are most needed by people with the maximum exposure- i.e frontline healthcare workers: ER physicians and nurses, ICU staff etc.

How useful is it?

As mentioned before, there are several people who might have the virus but are not showing any symptoms. These people are known as “asymptomatic carriers”. In an ideal world, we would test every single person and determine who actually has the virus and follow it up with self quarantining but in today’s real world, that is not feasible.
This is where the masks come in. The masks are helpful, in providing a layer of protection against the virus.

If you look at the picture- say a person coughed up 100 droplets- depending on the type of mask you’re wearing- 67-99% particles are filtered out.
On the other hand, if you actually have a droplet borne respiratory illness; wearing a mask by itself will filter 10-70% of the particles.

Since there is a national shortage of surgical masks and N95’s, please save those for the frontline healthcare providers and staff who have the maximum exposure
!! Mask safety: no masks/other coverings to be used for children < 2 years of age!! 1. Using a mask on an infant may lead to an increased risk of suffocation. their airways are smaller as compared to adults and wearing a mask may make breathing harder. 2. If the mask is too tight and infants are having a hard time breathing, they will be unable to communicate. 3. Toddlers are less likely to keep th mask on and in the process of trying to remove it, they will touch their face more- which we definitely want to avoid Is wearing masks mandatory? No. Does it provide some protection against getting infected with the virus: Probably, yes.

We’re still learning a lot about this strain of the coronavirus and the infection it causes. While we don’t have any large, long term studies as yet, we do have multiple small studies supporting “asymptomatic carrier” spread and in turn, use of mouth/nose coverings.

The mask does provide a certain degree of “inward protection”, however wearing masks itself is not foolproof- it does not guarantee that you will not get an infection or are not spreading the infection. Do not let it give you a false sense of security. It is only one of the layers in protecting yourself and others.
Masks should be worn, but always in conjunction with hand washing and social distancing.

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