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Masks: To Wear or Not to Wear?

By Joe Chow, MD, TeamHealth President Ambulatory Care

That is the question. The recommendations regarding wearing a surgical or cloth mask have changed a bit, but the utility has not. Even a few years ago, if I saw anyone wearing a mask while traveling, I would purposely try to avoid him or her.

Imagine boarding a plane and your only choice is to sit next to a masked passenger. But, maybe that’s the safest place to sit. Clearly, with coronavirus dominating the news, surgical masks are out of stock and many people are wearing homemade versions.

To clarify, surgical masks are different from true respirators, such as the N95, which should be fit tested for leakage and filters large and small aerosolized particles. The N95s should be worn by healthcare workers, if available, especially for high-risk procedures such as intubations. When properly fitted, they filter out smaller infectious particles.

Surgical masks or homemade cloth masks primarily protect others from a sick person coughing. In New York, the Governor recently made it a requirement for people to wear face masks or coverings when out in public.  Because some people will be asymptomatic or have few symptoms, but can still infect others, using a mask in public is a good idea. While original recommendations did not call for masks, their protective effect may help limit the spread of coronavirus tremendously.

Ultimately, the best defense in public is to wear a mask, wash your hands, don’t touch your face and avoid direct contact with those who are sick.