It might not be everyone’s favorite activity, but wearing a mask is one of the best ways to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.
“It’s basic science. It acts like a wall between you and the next person,” said Dr. Dee Barfield, senior medical director for Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Louisiana. “We know that this disease spreads from person to person through droplets. A physical barrier makes the most sense.”
Disposable surgical masks are highly effective for the general public during typical day-to-day activities and outings, Barfield said.
“Surgeons wear them when they are operating so the bacteria from their nose and mouth doesn’t get into the surgical wound,” Barfield explained. “They are incredibly effective. The only times those masks fail is if they don’t fit well enough. It needs to fit well on the sides of the face, under the chin and over the nose. You need it to fit as snugly as possible so droplets don’t get out in the gaps.”
Barfield said such masks can be worn more than once, especially when the wearer doesn’t come into close contact with others. However, they will need to be discarded once they become damp or visibly dirty, she said.
Cloth masks, which are usually washable, are also effective, especially if they are made with two layers of tightly-woven cotton, Barfield said.
“That is nearly as good as a surgical mask in terms of not letting anything through,” she said. “The important thing is that they fit well around the face. All of them are good because they all act like a wall to prevent the spread of the virus.”
These types of masks work well for people going about everyday activities. Healthcare professionals generally use N95 industrial strength masks, which have been proven to eliminate most airborne particles.
In lieu of masks, some people have opted for clear plastic face shields. Barfield said these create a physical barrier over much of the face, but their design – open on the sides and under the face -- means that droplets can enter below or around the shield.
“It’s good, but not great,” she said. “I would say a mask is better than a shield.”
Besides making sure your mask fits properly, Barfield said it’s critical to maintain them. For example, Barfield said that when she leaves a store, she doesn’t take off her mask right away, since her hands have become dirty.
“I clean my hands with sanitizer, let it dry, then take my mask off,” she said. “I don’t even touch my face before I’ve done that.”
Some people have chosen to wear gloves, but Barfield said those may have limited effectiveness. Medical professionals who wear them daily have learned what surfaces and items to touch and which ones to avoid. However, if someone wears gloves, then touches contaminated surfaces with the gloves on, the benefits are negligible.
“It’s probably better to wash your hands well and use hand sanitizer when you can’t, especially before you touch your face or your mask,” Barfield said. “Keep avoiding touching your face. Cough or sneeze into a tissue or your arm. All of those things that we said in the beginning still hold true today.”
Barfield said it generally takes up to 14 days after widespread mask usage begins to see declines in the number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations. Gov. John Bel Edwards issued a statewide mask mandate on July 11. The number of deaths caused by COVID-19 normally decline in another two weeks or so from that start date, she added.
The effects may be seen earlier in some parishes that adopted local mask regulations before the statewide mandate.
“We have proven that it works,” she said. “We did it before in Louisiana this year, when we all rallied and more people were wearing masks and maintaining social distancing. Then everybody kind of relaxed and it resurged. But we’ve done this, and I believe we can do it again.”