UPDATE: This article has been updated with new information on September 12, 2020, 6:00 a.m.
Don’t wear a mask, it won’t protect you. Save masks for healthcare workers. These phrases were replayed on all major news outlets in the beginning of the pandemic. I preached this line of thought to nervous family members and friends who desperately searched for masks online and in stores when the first serious reports of the pandemic started. But just a few weeks later, I found myself taking a break in my work day to make a face covering. New recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) came out on Friday, Apr. 3, 2020 saying that people who leave their homes, especially in areas where COVID-19 cases are high, should wear a cloth face covering in settings where social distancing measures are difficult (e.g. in crowded areas). And mask use is now mandated in many parts of the country and in most establishments.
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Why do we suddenly need to cover our faces now? What’s changed? Experts have gained more insight into the virus and they’re gaining new information daily. CNN reported on Apr. 4, 2020 that experts now believe the virus can not only be spread through coughing or sneezing, but talking and breathing could also potentially release virus particles into the air. This new information about how easily it may spread is why experts now believe covering your face in public is so important; it ensures particles from your mouth and nose (that could potentially be infected) stay close to you rather than spreading in the air. Coupled with this, experts have indicated that a significant number of people infected with the virus may be asymptomatic or presymptomatic. This means they could be spreading the virus without even knowing they are sick.
Those same experts hypothesized that air circulation could play a part in whether the virus lingers once droplets from your mouth or nose have entered a space. The findings showed it’s more likely to dissipate quickly outside vs. indoors. This is another reason for the CDC’s updated recommendations. If you’re asymptomatic and not wearing a face covering, you could be transmitting the virus to others without realizing it.
The CDC’s word choice — cloth face covering — is important. Face masks (such as surgical masks and respirators) should be reserved for healthcare workers and first responders. Respirators like the N95 mask (but not surgical face masks) are able to both block particles going out and coming in. That is why doctors and nurses who are treating COVID-19 patients need them most. A face covering is useful for the general public to decrease the chances of the virus spreading from you to others, but it offers little protection against someone else’s particles from a cough getting into your lungs. Therefore, it’s important to know that wearing a face covering in public does not mean you should suddenly throw social distancing out the window. Continue to maintain at least a 6-foot space around others.
What Fabric to Use For Your Face Covering
Most of the current recommendations call for a double layer of fabric. There are two factors to consider when creating your own mask: breathability and filtration. A report from the New York Times explained that a vacuum cleaner bag had high filtration, coffee filters were in the middle, and plain fabrics (like scarves) had the least amount. However, a chart by the Washington Post said vacuum cleaner bags were not as breathable. If you don’t have any filters to use, the New York Times article suggests you hold the fabric you want to use up to the light. If not a lot of light shines through that means it’s thick enough to block out some particles. Breathable materials like pillowcases, linen, and silk seem to work as well. However, none of these materials have actually been tested in large studies to see how well they block the COVID-19 virus.
Regardless of what fabric you choose, the popular opinion is that it’s better to wear a face covering right now than to not. Remember when you put one on, both your mouth and your nose should be fully covered in order for it to be effective. The CDC recommends washing these facial coverings regularly as well as using caution when you take them off and washing your hands immediately after handling. All proper disinfectant precautions should still take place.
How to Make a Face Covering
Homemade face coverings do not suddenly make you immune to catching COVID-19 out in public, but they do help decrease the likelihood of the virus spreading from you to others. The CDC shared step-by-step instructions on how to make them by sewing, as well as no-sew options like a bandana or T-shirt. I made mine with a bandana, hair ties, and a coffee filter and it took me less than a minute to do.
When you do need to go out, please do your part and wear a face covering as well as continuing to keep your distance from others and washing your hands thoroughly and regularly. If we all do our small part for prevention, we can slow the spread together.