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Wear a Face Mask to Protect Yourself and Others: Learn Why and How

November 16, 2022
child and stuffed animal wearing face mask

While the state of Massachusetts no longer requires face masks on public transportation and most public places (see exceptions here, including healthcare facilities), experts still recommend face masks as a way to prevent the spread of COVID-19. 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 and booster shots are recommended for the best protection against the virus, masks also play an important role as COVID spreads through our communities.

Types of Face Masks

Experts recommend wearing the best masks you can find to protect against COVID-19. Regardless of the type of mask you choose to wear, fit is very important

Masks

Masks (include cloth masks and surgical masks) are made to contain droplets and particles that you breathe in or cough or sneeze out – this way, they can help prevent you from spreading illness to others or catching an illness from someone else.

According to the CDC, you should choose:

  • Masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric (with surgical masks preferred over cloth masks)
  • Masks that completely cover your nose and mouth
  • Masks that fit snugly against the side of your face (no gaps)
  • Masks that have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask

Respirators

Respirators (like N95s and KN95s) serve the same purpose as masks, but are also made to provide extra protection by filtering the air and fitting closely on the face. According to the CDC, 60% of KN95 respirators sold during the COVID-19 pandemic did not meet the requirements they were intended to meet. It is very important to ensure that your respirator is approved by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)

You can also find free masks (N95 respirators) that are NIOSH-approved at participating pharmacies. 

Valve Masks

Valve masks are not recommended because they only protect the person wearing the mask. They allow virus particles to escape and spread. These kinds of masks, that have a small plastic valve on the front, are not allowed in any Baystate Health facility. Baystate Health also requires that all visitors wear masks issued by Baystate Health rather than a mask from home. 

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. 

Who Should and Should Not Wear a Mask

Masks should not be worn by:

  • Children younger than 2 years old
  • Anyone who is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance
  • Anyone with a disability who cannot safely wear a mask because of the disability

Should you wear a mask if you have asthma?

Yes. The CDC recommends people with asthma, respiratory issues, and other underlying conditions wear a mask.

Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.

Should you wear a mask if you have sensory issues?

Some young children and people with disabilities may not like the feeling of a mask on their face.

Talk to your doctor for advice and about other ways to limit transmission.

The CDC suggests make sure the mask fits properly and prioritize wearing masks in public, indoor spaces.

Should you wear a mask if you are deaf or interact with someone who is deaf?

Yes, you still need to wear a mask.

Consider wearing a mask with a clear panel or using written communication.

How and When to Cover Your Face

The CDC is continually monitoring the spread of COVID-19 and recommending how to best protect yourself.

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.

The CDC recommends "layered prevention strategies" (including vaccination and mask-wearing) to prevent severe illness and the spread of COVID-19. While masks are not required in many public places currently, you can protect yourself by staying aware of the levels of COVID-19 in your community

CDC Recommendations for Communities

  • Low levels: Wear a mask based on your preference.
  • Medium levels: Wear a mask if you are immunocompromised or live with someone who is at risk for severe illness. Talk with your doctor about what precautions are best for your protection.
  • High levels: Wear a well-fitted mask indoors in public, regardless of your vaccination status. If you are immunocompromised, wear a respirator for greater protection.

Where should I wear a cloth face covering?

Check with your state's guidelines to understand masking rules and regulations, which change frequently. Masks are currently only required in certain areas in the state of Massachusetts:

  • The RIDE (MBTA's paratransit service)
  • Healthcare facilities, services, and programs
  • Congregate care facilities
  • Emergency shelter programs
  • Correctional facilities

COVID-19 is still circulating in the community and cases of other respiratory infections, including RSV and flu, are rising. Even if masking is not required, you can choose to wear a mask to protect yourself and others.

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 (no gaps)
  • 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, continue to practice healthy habits

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

  • Get the COVID-19 bivalent booster shot. If you have not been vaccinated against COVID-19, please do so.
  • 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.

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