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Experts recommend wearing face masks: Learn what kind to wear and how to wear one safely

July 29, 2021

With the delta variant spreading across the U.S., the CDC updated its masking guidelines for fully vaccinated people. Learn more about mask basics, and when to wear one, below.

According to CDC case studies, masks successfully prevent the spread of COVID-19, and a 2020 CDC scientific brief emphasized that masks do in fact protect the wearer – not just other people.

While the COVID-19 vaccine is recommended for the best protection against the virus, masks also play an important role as COVID spreads through our communities.

According to Dr. Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC: "Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting. All Americans have a responsibility to protect themselves, their families, and their communities."

What should I not use as a face covering?

Do not use surgical masks or N-95 respirators. We must reserve these supplies for health care workers who are on the frontlines of this pandemic.

Valve masks are not recommended because they only protect the person wearing the mask. These kinds of masks, that have a small plastic valve on the front, are not allowed in any Baystate Health facility. 

The CDC specifies that, while a mask with an exhalation valve can be more comfortable for the wearer, they should not be worn in situations where the mask's purpose is to protect both the wearer and others:

"Respirators with exhalation valves should not be used in situations where a sterile field must be maintained (e.g., during an invasive procedure in an operating or procedure room) because the exhalation valve may allow unfiltered exhaled air to escape into the sterile field."

We wear masks to limit the spread of COVID-19 (including between people who have no symptoms), therefore valve masks are of little use in our current situation. 

Download a graphic guide to face mask requirements at Baystate Health (including a picture of a valve mask). 

Who Should Not Wear a Mask

Masks should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Anyone who has trouble breathing
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance

How and When to Cover Your Face

The CDC recommends masks for unvaccinated people, but also for fully vaccinated people in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high transmission.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are continually monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and recommending how to best protect oneself.

We know that those who are asymptomatic (those who have COVID-19 and lack symptoms) and pre-symptomatic (those who have COVID-19 and will eventually develop symptoms) can transmit the virus by speaking, coughing, or sneezing near others through aerosol droplets.

Because of this evidence, the CDC recommends wearing a face cloth covering in public settings where it may be hard to distance oneself from others. The recommended face coverings are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators, the CDC clarifies: “those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.”

While cloth face masks are recommended for public settings, health officials emphasize the importance of continuing other important prevention measures. Face coverings are protective, but are shown to be most effective when used along with vaccination, social distancing and handwashing.

Where should I wear a cloth face covering?

In short, you should wear a face covering whenever you're indoors in public. It is especially important (and required) that you wear a mask when you're around other people and keeping a distance of 6 feet is not possible, including in:

  • Grocery stores
  • Pharmacies
  • Gas stations/convenience stores
  • Bus/train stations
  • Medical facilities    

However, be aware that masks should not replace social distancing.    

What kinds of face coverings can I use?

According to the CDC, you should choose:

  • Masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
  • Masks that completely cover your nose and mouth
  • Masks that fit snugly against the side of your face
  • Masks that have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask

How to properly use a cloth face covering

  • Fit: Make sure your face covering fits snugly but comfortably to your face shape.
  • Layers: Your face covering should ideally include multiple layers of fabric.
  • Breathing: You must be able to breathe normally without restriction. Do not wear or create a face covering that restricts your natural breathing pattern.
  • Ties: Proper face coverings should be secured to the head/face with ties or ear loops. You should be able to move freely without having to hold or maneuver your face covering.
  • Cleaning: Cloth face coverings should be washed depending on how frequently they are used.
  • Safety: Be sure to not touch your eyes, nose, and mouth when removing your face covering. Wash hands immediately after you remove your face covering. Place face covering on the floor by the door or somewhere it will stay out of the way.

Above all else, continue to practice healthy habits

Do not rely on cloth face coverings alone to help keep you healthy during the COVID-19 pandemic:

  • Get the COVID-19 vaccine.
  • Maintain a 6-foot social distance from others in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19.
  • Wash your hands regularly with soap and warm water for 20 seconds.
  • If you feel sick or have symptoms of COVID-19, stay home and call your doctor.
  • Be sure to sneeze or cough inside of your elbow.
  • If someone in your home tests positive, the entire household should stay home.

For further information about cloth face coverings, refer to these FAQs from the CDC.

NPR and The New York Times have compiled helpful information on this topic including: