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What You Should Know About Face Masks

Jul 30, 2021
By Spencer Blackman

Updated August 27, 2021.

By now, it is well known that wearing masks can help prevent the spread of COVID-19. But while it may seem like you can find masks at any store these days, not all masks offer the same protection. If changing public health guidance has left you confused about which type of mask is right for you, you’re not alone. Here’s what you need to know about face masks and COVID-19:

Masks 101

There are three common types of masks for the prevention of COVID-19: cloth masks, medical procedure masks, and N95 respirator masks. Many companies and individuals have fashioned cloth masks out of fabric The effectiveness of these masks varies with their material and fit. Medical procedure masks, also known as surgical, or “loop” masks, are looser fitting, held on to the user’s face by loops that go over each ear, and are disposable. These are the types of masks you see portrayed on medical shows like Grey’s Anatomy or ER. They are typically used for medical procedures to protect others from any germs the wearer may spread. N95 respirator masks are designed to form a seal around the user’s nose and mouth and use a special synthetic fabric to filter out at least 95% of the very small particles in the air, including the coronavirus. These masks are a vital component of the personal protective equipment (PPE) healthcare workers need to care for sick patients, along with eye protection, gowns and gloves.

Should I be wearing a mask?

Mask guidance varies depending on your vaccination status, local regulations, and local case rates. If you have been fully vaccinated against the COVID-19 virus, the CDC previously stated that you no longer need to wear a mask or socially distance in most indoor and outdoor settings. However, with the increased transmissibility and higher community spread associated with the delta variant, the CDC now recommends people should wear a mask in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission. If you are immunocompromised, are at increased risk for severe disease from COVID-19, or live with someone who is immunocompromised, at increased risk of severe disease or not fully vaccinated, you may choose to wear a mask regardless of local transmission levels. If you are vaccinated and have been exposed to someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19, you should get tested 3-5 days after your exposure and wear a mask in public indoor settings for 14 days or until you receive a negative test result.

Those two years of age and older who have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, should continue to wear a face mask in all public settings and when around a mix of fully vaccinated and vaccinated people. If you haven’t been fully vaccinated, you can, however, go without a mask while exercising outdoors with members of your household and while attending small, outdoor gatherings with fully vaccinated people from other households. Masks are also recommended inside your home if you live or care for someone who is experiencing symptoms of COVID-19 or has tested positive.

Regardless of your vaccination status, everyone should continue to wear masks in healthcare settings, on trains, buses, planes, or other modes of public transportation, in transportation hubs like airports and bus stations, and in prisons, jails, and homeless shelters. This is to slow the spread of the virus and prevent those who have the virus and don’t know it from transmitting it to others. Everyone should also continue to abide by state, local, and tribal mask and social distancing regulations, as well as rules for local businesses and workplaces.

Which type of mask should I wear?

While wearing any mask can reduce your risk of COVID-19, not all are equally as effective. The CDC recently released a report that showed properly fitted masks can further reduce COVID-19 transmission. The study found that wearing a cloth mask over a medical procedure mask or tightening the fit of a medical procedure mask by knotting the ear loops and tucking in the sides can decrease exposure to potentially infectious aerosols by 95%. To best protect yourself,follow these guidelines:

  • Choose a mask that fits snugly against your nose, mouth and chin. Masks with nose wires are optimal. Mask “fitters” or “braces” can be used to help the mask fit more snuggly as well.
  • Use cloth masks with multiple layers of fabric or wear a cloth mask over a disposable, medical procedure mask. Some cloth masks come with pockets for insertable filters and we think this a great approach.
  • Use the “knot and tuck” method for medical procedure masks.
  • Do not combine two disposable masks
  • Do not combine an N95 or KN95 mask with another mask

The public health agency has emphasized however, N95 masks should be reserved for healthcare providers and other medical first responders.

It is important to remember that none of these options offer 100% protection. While wearing a mask or face covering, you should continue to practice social distancing and follow recommended preventative measures like hand washing to protect yourself and others.

Be sure to wash cloth masks routinely depending on the frequency of use, using a washing machine if possible. If it’s disposable, throw it away after use. It’s also important to be mindful when removing your mask, to not touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. You should wash your hands immediately after touching it. For more information on which masks you should use, please see the CDC website.

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Spencer Blackman, One Medical Provider

Spencer practices relationship-centered primary care, blending a traditional sensibility with up-to-date clinical knowledge and a strong focus on disease prevention. He enjoys getting to know his patients well, educating and empowering them to participate in health care decisions. Spencer completed his residency training at UCSF and practiced primary care, urgent care, sports medicine and adolescent medicine throughout the Bay Area before joining One Medical Group. He is certified with the American Board of Family Medicine. Spencer is a One Medical Group provider.

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The One Medical blog is published by One Medical, an innovative primary care practice with offices in Atlanta, Boston, Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Orange County,Phoenix, Portland, San Diego, the San Francisco Bay Area, Seattle, and Washington, DC.

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