When public health officials first urged people to wear face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they emphasized that it was to protect others from getting infected by your germs. Now, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has officially shifted its stance: The agency confirms that a face mask can protect the wearer, too.
On Nov. 10, the CDC released a scientific brief that explains how wearing a mask can provide “filtration for personal protection.”
“Studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns,” the brief states, noting that “multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts.”
Some materials, like polypropylene (which is derived from plastic) may even lead to better filtration through a form of static electricity, the CDC says. Other materials like silk help repel moist droplets for breathability.
“There’s plenty of good data to support this,” says John Sellick, D.O., an infectious disease expert and professor of medicine at the University at Buffalo/SUNY in New York. For example, one often-cited CDC study published in July found that masks worn by beauty salon customers and hairdressers helped prevent two stylists from transmitting the virus to 67 clients who visited the shop.
Another study followed infected people on a long flight who didn’t appear to transmit the novel coronavirus to fellow masked passengers and crew members in the 14 days after the flight. What’s more, a study of 124 households in Beijing with at least one confirmed case of COVID-19 found that disease transmission was reduced by 79% when a sick person and family members wore masks before the patient developed symptoms.
That’s why William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, wishes “the CDC would have made these statements more strongly earlier.”
“There are a lot of people out there who, if they had been aware that the mask also protected them, would have actually worn one,” Dr. Schaffner says. “The business of wearing a mask to protect others only goes so far.”
He stresses these findings aren’t exactly new but adds that “it’s very good for this to come from the CDC.”
This shift could also have bigger implications for future mask recommendations, says Rajeev Fernando, M.D., an infectious disease expert in Southampton, New York, including a possible national mandate. “Universal masking is the only way to go if we are going to prevent more new cases and deaths,” he says. “It will also prevent future possible lockdowns.”
The federal agency backs him up on that: “Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation,” the brief concluded.
That said, wearing a face mask “does not make you superman,” Dr. Sellick warns. “It’s never going to provide 100% protection. But the more people who are wearing masks to prevent the virus from escaping, the less pressure it puts on everyone else’s mask to filter things. It’s a big circle that goes round and round.”
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