UNION COUNTY — One of the most often-heard, and often-debated, recommendations for combating the spread of COVID-19 is to wear a mask.
“We continue to see evidence coming forward through studies being conducted about their effectiveness,” said Carrie Brogoitti, public health administrator for the Center for Human Development, La Grande. “We don’t want people to have a false sense of security it will 100% protect them. Truly, the masks are to protect those around you rather than the wearer. We see their effectiveness as a tool in stopping transmission.”
Those who are not confirmed cases or don’t have symptoms of COVID-19 are recommended to wear a mask when in an area of high traffic and potential contamination, such as grocery stores, work, social and mass gatherings, and where physical distancing cannot be achieved, such as public transportation or at the doctor’s office. Those with COVID-19 symptoms or confirmed cases are advised to wear a mask always when leaving the house.
“The purpose of the masks is to protect the people around you,” Brogoitti said. “To take care of each other. In my mind, our mission is to protect the most vulnerable in the community. Those who are at risk due to conditions and age. Our objective is to keep those people safe.”
There are two different types of masks, medical and non-medical. Medical masks include N95 respirators and surgical masks, and the World Health Organization does not recommend these for general use, as it could divert a needed resource from health workers and at-risk individuals. Non-medical masks including paper disposable masks, cloth masks and other face coverings that can be made at home. They are not as effective as medical masks, but studies show they provide a level of protection in slowing the spread of COVID-19, according to the World Health Organization.
WHO released an updated document regarding mask wearing on June 5, stating: “The use of masks is part of a comprehensive package of the prevention and control measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19. Masks can be used either for protection of healthy persons (worn to protect oneself when in contact with an infected individual) or for source control (worn by an infected individual to prevent onward transmission).”
Perhaps part of the confusion around the effectiveness of face coverings comes from the fact that WHO did not recommend everyone wear face masks in the initial advice published in April. The organization has since changed its guidance as more research became available.
However, there are some known and researched risks regarding wearing face coverings. According to a 2006 and 2017 study on contamination, there is a risk of self-contamination when using a face mask and then subsequently touching the eyes or face after removing it. Contamination also can occur when masks are not removed after being wet or soiled.
Depending on the type of mask used, other potential risks include skin irritation and acne, difficulty breathing and headaches. Some people may not be able to wear a mask due to medical conditions, which is why Brogoitti said it is important for those who can wear a mask to do so.
While there is evidence of risks and ineffectiveness, local, national and international public health agencies and governments all agree at this time that masks are one of the most effective tools in curbing the spread of COVID-19.