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How do face masks protect you from COVID-19?

As the COVID-19/Coronavirus pandemic continues to spread throughout the world, a confusing topic continues to be the wearing of face masks. At the start of the pandemic, Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, recommended that people who were not sick should not be wearing a mask. Now, however, Tam and Canada’s public health officials recommend non-medical face masks be worn in public when social distancing isn’t possible, and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has said he will do just that. What’s changed? Is a mask really necessary?

Face Masks Protect Others From Coronavirus

A May 22 paper in the Annals of Internal Medicine took a close look at the effectiveness of masks in preventing the spread of disease. The results offer evidence that face masks can stop respiratory droplets from spreading. If someone wearing a face mask sneezes, the people around them are far better protected from potentially virus-bearing droplets than if there was no mask in place. “Every virus-laden particle retained in a mask is not available to hang in the air as an aerosol or fall to a surface to be later picked up by touch,” said researchers in the paper.

Do Face Masks Protect You from COVID-19?

Perhaps the most important thing to understand is how coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, is passed from person to person. COVID-19 spreads primarily between people who are within about 6 feet (2 meters) of one another. It happens when one person produces respiratory droplets through a cough, sneeze, or talking, and another person inhales them. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the virus spreads very easily between people, much more so than influenza.

The best way to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is to disinfect surfaces, practice frequent and thorough handwashing, and maintain social distance so those respiratory droplets can’t land on another person. But when social distancing isn’t possible, a face mask is the next best thing.

Cloth face masks are not designed to prevent the virus from permeating through to the wearer, and this may be why they have been the subject of so much controversy. Medical-grade face masks designed to filter particles in the air and protect the wearer are critical supplies that remain reserved for healthcare workers and first responders. Cloth face masks do prevent the spread of the disease, however, so in the long run, yes – they protect everyone.

In the briefing in which she recommended wearing masks, Dr. Tam noted people should see masks “as a way to protect other people – when two people are both wearing masks, they are protecting the other.” As children, we are taught to cover our mouths when we sneeze or cough – it prevents the spread of germs, and it’s the polite thing to do. Wearing a mask is simply the more advanced version of this – when the germs involved are much more dangerous and potentially deadly.

As we learn more about the coronavirus and head into summer, it becomes more evident that wearing a mask as an extra layer of protection is a wise move, as well as one that demonstrates a concern for fellow citizens. Handwashing remains essential and social distancing remains ideal, but as people grow tired of isolation and need to get out, face masks are important to protect ourselves and others from the spread of COVID-19.

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