As more information becomes available about COVID-19 and how it’s transmitted, masking policies must be updated to reflect new evidence. While it was originally reported in 2020 that the novel coronavirus spread through large droplets and distancing offered sufficient protection, this is no longer the case.
Recent studies suggest that the primary transmission route for COVID-19 is through aerosol droplets, which are airborne. With this knowledge, masking guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and World Health Organization (WHO) have shifted.
Types of Masks
There is a wide variety of masks on the market, and it can be overwhelming to know which one is right for you. No matter which style of mask you choose, always say no to masks with an exhalation valve because this will not prevent you from spreading airborne droplets. The four prevalent mask types available in the United States include:
Cloth face coverings should be worn only by individuals who are not in the high-risk category for infection from COVID-19. These are non-medical masks and can be purchased from clothing stores or made at home.
Medical Procedure Masks
Medical procedure masks are sometimes called disposable masks or surgical masks and are widely available for use by the general population. These are comfortable and convenient but may not provide a tight enough fit for adequate protection in a scenario where there is a high risk of exposure to the virus.
KN95 respirators are an excellent option for situations where there is prolonged exposure in close quarters. These are filtering facepieces that remove up to 95% of particles from the air as long as they meet the US requirements set out by the NIOSH. KN95 masks are designed for single use and are commercially available.
N95 respirators approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) are designated (in the United States) for use by medical professionals in a health care setting.
What Type of Mask Should You Be Wearing?
The WHO masking guidelines for 2021 suggest that you should be wearing a medical-grade mask if you are:
- A health care worker in a clinical setting
- Waiting for a COVID-19 test result
- Experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, no matter how mild
- A contact of someone who recently tested positive
- Taking care of someone who has COVID-19 or is exhibiting symptoms
- Aged 60+
- At a higher risk due to underlying health conditions like diabetes, cancer, obesity, or cardiovascular disease
The WHO recommends that people under 60 with no underlying health conditions can wear non-medical cloth masks to slow the spread of COVID-19. While the CDC suggests that cloth masks should have a minimum of two layers, the WHO further advises that anyone wearing non-surgical masks should ensure their mask has three layers.
It should have an absorbent inner layer like cotton, a non-woven middle layer such as polypropylene, and a non-absorbent outer layer, like polyester.
Ways to Improve Mask Fit
Universal masking is a prevention strategy implemented across much of the United States as of early 2021. A report published on the CDC website in February 2021 found that double masking was a valuable way to reduce transmission among populations wearing non-medical masks and medical procedure masks.
In the report, the CDC outlines an experiment that assessed the effectiveness of two methods for improving a surgical mask’s fit. One of these methods was to fit a cloth mask over the top of a surgical mask, and the other was knotting the ear loops of a medical procedure mask to ensure the mask fits snugly.
The CDC concluded that both of these options for improving your mask’s fit protect you and others from COVID-19 exposure better than a single cloth mask or loose-fitting surgical mask.
When You Should Wear a Mask
The WHO recommends that masks be worn in a public setting where social distancing cannot be maintained or poor ventilation. However, gauging the level of adequate ventilation and air circulation in an indoor space is challenging, so whenever you’re indoors outside your own home, masking is the safest option. This includes visiting with someone indoors who is not a member of your household.
Masks should also be worn in outdoor settings where social distancing is not possible, like crowded urban streets. While being outdoors is generally safer than indoors because of the increased airflow, it’s still best to avoid large crowds wherever possible.
Despite the CDC and WHO suggesting that masks don’t need to be worn when social distancing is maintained, infectious disease specialist Jennifer Veldman, MD, at Loma Linda University Health, warns that the six feet apart distancing guideline was developed when it was thought that COVID-19 was transmitted through large droplets.
With evidence that COVID-19 is airborne and can potentially stay in the air for hours after an infected individual leaves a space, it’s always a smart idea to wear a mask with a good fit when you’re outside your own home.
Mask Wearing After Vaccination
As vaccinations ramp up, the question on most people’s minds is whether mask-wearing is necessary after you receive your COVID-19 vaccination. Although the COVID-19 vaccine protects the vaccinated individual against severe illness, there is little information available about whether fully vaccinated people can still have and transmit the virus without experiencing any symptoms.
For this reason, the CDC recommends that once you’ve been fully vaccinated, you should still wear a mask in public spaces, maintain a physical distance of six feet, and steer clear of poorly ventilated areas. However, some perks for those who’ve received the full dosage of their vaccine allow the beginning of a return to normal life.
Fully vaccinated people can:
- Gather indoors with other fully vaccinated people without masks
- Not get tested if they’ve had contact with someone positive for COVID-19
When visiting with other fully vaccinated people, if anyone in their household has not yet been vaccinated, you could still be putting those individuals at risk.
The CDC also continues to advise against domestic and international travel even once you’ve been vaccinated because there is still a lot to be learned about vaccine efficacy against the COVID-19 variants that are circulating internationally.
As more people are vaccinated for COVID-19, more information becomes available on how vaccination affects transmission and how long people are protected after receiving both doses. Both the CDC and WHO continue to update their sites regularly with guidance as new data comes to light.
In the meantime, everyone must continue to do their part and practice good mask etiquette to protect themselves and others. Choose ICU Productions for your mask needs, whether that’s surgical, KN95, or N95 masks. We offer a wide range of trusted PPE gear designed for your safety.