Mayo Clinic – Mask recommendations continue, even with vaccines becoming available

By Mayo Clinic Staff, Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research

DEAR MAYO CLINIC: With the news of the COVID-19 vaccine being available, I know there are also recommendations to still wear masks and continue with safety measures. But, honestly, I'm confused by what mask to wear and when. Can you share some more information on masks, how they work and what is appropriate?

ANSWER: When the COVID-19 virus was first identified, experts did not know the full extent of how the virus was spreading, so there were different recommendations and thoughts regarding when to mask and what to wear. Currently, the World Health Organization and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) include masks in their recommendations for slowing the spread of the virus.

Specifically, the CDC recommends cloth masks for the public and not the surgical or N95 masks needed by health care providers. Below are additional details on each and how they work to help stop the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

A surgical mask, also called a medical mask, is a loose-fitting disposable mask that protects the wearer's nose and mouth from contact with droplets, splashes and sprays that may contain germs. A surgical mask also filters out large particles in the air. Surgical masks may protect others by reducing exposure to the saliva and respiratory secretions of the mask wearer.

At this time, the Food and Drug Administration has not approved any one type of surgical mask specifically for protection against the coronavirus, but these masks may provide some protection when N95 masks are not available.

An N95 mask is actually a type of respirator, which offers more protection than a surgical mask does because it can filter out both large and small particles when the wearer inhales. As the name indicates, the mask is designed to block 95% of very small particles.

Health care providers must be trained and pass a fit test to confirm a proper seal before using an N95 mask in the workplace. Like surgical masks, N95 masks are intended to be disposable. However, researchers are testing ways to disinfect N95 masks so they can be reused.

Some N95 masks, and even some cloth masks, have one-way valves that make them easier to breathe through. But because the valve releases unfiltered air when the wearer breathes out, this type of mask doesn't prevent the wearer from spreading the virus. For this reason, some places have banned N95 masks.

A cloth mask is intended to trap droplets that are released when the wearer talks, coughs or sneezes. Asking everyone to wear cloth masks can reduce the spread of the virus by people who have COVID-19 but don't realize it.

Typically, for the general public, a cloth mask is the covering that is ideal and most likely to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus when widely used by people in public settings. And countries that required masks, testing, isolation and social distancing early in the pandemic have successfully slowed the spread of the virus.

While surgical and N95 masks may be in short supply — and should be reserved for health care providers — cloth face coverings and masks are easy to find or make and can be washed and reused. Cloth masks should include multiple layers of fabric. The CDC website even includes directions for no-sew masks made from bandannas and T-shirts.

The CDC recommends that you wear a cloth mask when you're around people who don't live with you and in public settings when social distancing is difficult. Children under 2 should not wear a mask.

Finding a mask that is comfortable is important, so try several to find the best material and fit for you. Here are a few pointers for putting on and taking off a cloth mask:

Wash or sanitize your hands before and after putting on and taking off your mask.

Place your mask over your mouth and nose.

Tie it behind your head or use ear loops and make sure it's snug.

Don't touch your mask while wearing it. If you accidentally touch it, wash or sanitize your hands.

If your mask becomes wet or dirty, switch to a clean one. Put the used mask in a sealable bag until you can wash it.

Remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face.

Wash your hands immediately after removing your mask.

Regularly wash your mask with soap and water by hand or in the washing machine. It's fine to launder it with other clothes.

Here are a few mask precautions:

Don't put masks on anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious or otherwise unable to remove the mask without help.

Don't put masks on children under 2.

Don't use masks as a substitute for social distancing.

If you have concerns about wearing a mask, talk with your health care provider about how to protect yourself and others during the pandemic. — Compiled by Mayo Clinic Staff

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