The new coronavirus—or COVID-19—is spreading across the United States. Health officials are working to understand how to contain it. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends that everyone in the general public wear a facial mask in addition to continuing to follow social distancing guidelines when they must go out into public.
Path to improved health
At first, the CDC said not to wear a mask. Why do we now need to wear masks?
As we receive more data about COVID-19, we know more about how it spreads. Data shows that many people already have the virus who do not know that they have it. They are asymptomatic, or not showing symptoms. It can take up to 14 days for a person who has been infected to develop symptoms. That means that when these people go to places like grocery stores and cough or sneeze, they are unintentionally spreading the virus.
The CDC recommendation is designed to slow the rate of spread of the virus in your community and to protect as many people as possible. Wearing a mask will help to contain your own germs while you are talking but especially should you cough or sneeze in a public place. It will help to prevent you from giving COVID-19 to other people.
Do I still need to practice social distancing?
Yes. Wearing a mask should not take the place of social distancing. You should still stay at least 6 feet away from other people when you go out in public. A mask may help to prevent you from giving the virus to others, but also protects you (the wearer) by reducing the amount of virus exposure. It is still important that you stay home as much as possible and continue to properly wash your hands.
Is there a vaccine for COVID-19?
A vaccine for COVID-19 has been authorized for emergency use in the United States. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has authorized the vaccine, and the CDC has recommended the Pfizer-BioNTech’s coronavirus vaccine for people 16 and older.
In clinical trials, the vaccine proved to be about 95% effective in preventing people from getting seriously ill from COVID-19. Pfizer-BioNTech tested its vaccine on about 44,000 people and reported the vaccine effective in preventing COVID-19 illness consistently “across age, gender, race, and ethnicity demographics.”
Eventually, a vaccine will be available for everyone. For now, the supply is limited. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), through its independent advisory committee, has recommended the order in which people should receive the vaccination. Among the first: health care workers and residents of long-term-care facilities. It will be up to individual states to decide the order in which they will administer the vaccine. They likely will follow the CDC recommendations. Find out more about the vaccine.
What makes an effective cloth mask?
An effective cloth mask should:
- Cover the nose and mouth and fit snugly against the sides of the face
- Be secured to the ear with ties or loops
- Include multiple layers of fabric
- Allow for breathing without restriction
- Be machine washable and dryable without losings its shape or fit
Note that bandanas and neck gaiters are not adequate substitutes for masks.
How do I make my own cloth mask?
The CDC has posted instructions for how to make your own cloth mask from materials you may already have at home. You can use a t-shirt or a bandana to make your own cloth mask. See instructions from the CDC.
Things to consider
When you wear a mask, it is important to know how to wear it properly. When using a mask, you should:
- Wash your hands with soap and water before putting on the mask. If you do not have soap and water available, used an alcohol-based hand rub.
- Cover your mouth and nose with the mask. Make sure it is snug to your face.
- Do not touch the mask while using it. Do not touch any other areas of your face.
- As soon as you return home, take the mask off and put it in the wash.
- Remove the mask by touching it from behind. Do not touch the front of the mask. Throw it in the washing machine and wash your hands immediately.
Note that children under the age of 2 and anyone who has trouble breathing should not wear a face mask.
Questions to ask your doctor
- Where can I donate N95 respirators I have at home?
- If I have tested positive for COVID-19, will wearing a mask around the house help to protect my family from getting the virus?
- What should I do if I have trouble breathing with a mask on? Is there anything else I can wear?
- Should I wear a mask when going for a walk around my neighborhood?
Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians
This information provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. Talk to your family doctor to find out if this information applies to you and to get more information on this subject.