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Masks are an effective tool — if used correctly

‘I have seen too many people who either don’t seem to understand how a face mask is supposed to work, or they think half a job is better than none’

Richard Davis, a retired registered nurse and health-care professional and tireless advocate for access to health care, serves as Guilford’s health officer.


Over the past few weeks, I have been tempted to create a squad of the mask police. I have seen too many people who either don’t seem to understand how a face mask is supposed to work, or they think half a job is better than none.

When I see people who do not cover their nose with a mask, my blood pressure rises a little, but I have refrained from telling them how to use it correctly.

Forty years as a nurse in a variety of settings has given me some credibility in this area, having spent probably hundreds of hours close to communicable disease while wearing a mask and other protective gear.

This isn’t rocket science. It’s actually pretty simple if you just put a little bit of thought into why you are wearing a mask.

* * *

Although some masks are more effective than others, they all have the same purpose: to stop the spread of disease.

If a person has a disease that may be spread by coughing, or if someone wants to protect themselves from situations where they may contract a disease that is spread through the air, then a mask can be an effective tool to stop transmission.

Most masks used by health-care workers were designed for very-short-term single use but, because of supply shortages, they are being used longer. Cleaning techniques have been developed, but it is clear that using masks for long periods makes them less effective. During a pandemic, some protection is better than no protection.

Putting on a mask is called “donning.” Before you put one on, wash your hands. If it is a colored surgical mask, make sure the colored side is on the outside. If you are using a three-ply surgical mask, it is worth noting the following.

• A three-ply surgical or medical mask has three layers. The outer (hydrophobic) layer repels water, blood, and body fluids. The middle filter layer is designed to filter bacteria, and the inner (hydrophilic) layer absorbs water, sweat, and spit.

According to some sources, the three-ply surgical mask has been proven to be as effective as N95 respirators in preventing viral infections like influenza.

Here is some good information from WebMD. “Wash your hands before you put the mask on your face, and grasp it by the edges. Loop the ties or fasteners behind your ears, and try not to touch the cloth that covers your mouth and nose, which can contaminate the surface.

“While wearing the mask at the grocery store or another public setting, don’t touch the mask or pull it down. If the mask covers your mouth but not your nose, for instance, it’s still possible to spread the virus. Remember that the mask may have contaminants, so leave it on if you’re driving home from the store and take it off at home.

“When removing the face covering, don’t touch your eyes, nose, or mouth. Wash your hands immediately after removing, the CDC says. Place the mask in a plastic bag until you’re ready to wash it. Masks should be considered ‘dirty’ and contaminated after each use. Wash it in a washing machine with soap and hot water, and dry it in a dryer.”

Web MD has also noted, “The CDC recommends using cloth face coverings and has asked the public to reserve surgical masks and N95 respirators for health care workers who need supplies to treat COVID-19 patients.”

“Putting a filter between the layers of fabric may help, and if you choose to do this, make sure the mask has a pocket for the filter so you can remove it to wash the mask. Experts say a cut piece of a HEPA filter, like those found in air conditioners or furnaces, work well. Some have even suggested cut pieces of vacuum cleaner bags.”

* * *

If you follow these guidelines, we have the best chance of returning to a life that is closer to the one we had only a few months ago.

If you see people wearing masks without covering their noses, politely ask them to cover up.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #563 (Wednesday, May 27, 2020). This story appeared on page B1.

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