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Should You Wear a Mask in Public?

February 02, 2022

For some people, wearing a mask – or not – has become a political statement. But if we consider the science, we know that wearing a mask is an easy way you can protect the people around you. You can have COVID-19 without realizing it. And if you spread the virus to someone else, that person may take it home and spread it to someone who would not do well fighting it off. Consider people who are older than 65 as well as people – young and old – who have chronic conditions like cancer, diabetes and heart disease. For them, this virus can mean critical illness or death. Additionally, vaccinated people have lower rates of severe disease and death due to COVID-19 than unvaccinated people – even after adjusting for age, sex, race and ethnicity.

We do many things to protect others from unnecessary harm. We don’t drink and drive. We don’t run stop lights. We don’t shout “fire” in a crowded theater. The same principle applies here. Regardless of vaccination status, wearing a mask in public protects everyone else from the germs that are released every time you breathe, talk, laugh, cough or sneeze. It’s as simple as that.

To protect yourself and the people you love, play it safe by wearing a mask. Here, experts at The University of Kansas Health System have answered a few frequently asked questions about masks.

  • Yes. Many people with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, which means they are not experiencing symptoms of the illness. In other words, you can be infected and not know it.

    If you have the virus, the mask will keep your droplets – which come out when you breathe, talk or cough – close to you. And if you and another person you interact with both wear masks, that will cut down on the chance of either person being infected. The risk is further lowered if you can maintain at least 6 feet of distance between yourself and the other person.

  • Protect yourself and others by wearing the most protective, well-fitting mask that you will wear consistently. We have always been a proponent of wearing a mask, a critical public health tool. In the current omicron environment, KN95 or N95 masks are recommended. Another option is to layer a cloth mask over a procedural mask. And above all, any mask is better than no mask.

    Learn more about different types of masks and how to best wear them.

  • According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when and where to wear a mask depends on your COVID-19 Community Level. As masks offer protection against all variants, the CDC recommends everyone, regardless of vaccination status, wear a mask when in public indoor settings in areas of substantial or high community transmission. Learn more about COVID-19 Community Levels.

  • It's important to touch your mask as little as possible after you put it on. But it is difficult to keep it on for prolonged periods, especially when the weather is warm. If you are running errands and can keep your mask on without manipulating it, that would be best. If you do have to remove it in the car, keep some hand sanitizer with you and use it before removing your mask. Clean your hands again before replacing the mask.

  • Leaving it on the dash for a while may be OK, as the sun’s ultraviolet rays can kill microorganisms like the virus. But it is essential you wear a clean mask.

  • It can be OK, as long as the hair stylist is also wearing a mask. Both of you should make sure you perform good hand hygiene before the appointment begins. Using freshly cleaned capes or gowns for every client is helpful. And all equipment should be sanitized between clients.

    Don't manipulate your mask during the appointment. Clean your hands again when you return to your car. And, finally, if either you or the stylist has symptoms or is ill, do not keep that appointment. It may be difficult to ask your stylist if they have any symptoms, but it's the right thing to do.

    Follow these same guidelines with any appointment that puts you and another person in close proximity for longer than 10 minutes.

  • No. Wearing a mask is safe. There are some common beliefs about masks that are not true. For example, carbon dioxide does not build up when you wear a mask. Carbon dioxide diffuses easily through the mask. Also, wearing a mask will not weaken your immune system. These misconceptions can be put to rest. We encourage the use of masks when out in public or when physical distancing is not possible. Covering the mouth and nose reduces the spread of germs.

How to fit your mask

Dr. Hawkinson shows how to ensure a good fit with a surgical mask. Follow this step-by-step method to get the most protection from wearing a mask to prevent COVID spread. Video updated on Jan. 11, 2022.

Dana Hawkinson, MD: Improved fit will help reduce the risk of catching coronavirus and help reduce the spread. Currently on the CDC website, they do have that it is important to make sure that you improve the fit of your mask as much as possible. And you can do that by tying the mask or improving the fit of the surgical mask.

So first I want to make sure that I have my hand sanitized with alcohol gel. And the easiest way to do it is to just pick it up before you place it on your face. At that point in time, you just fold it in half. So it's kind of folded like a hot dog bun. Next, you work towards tying the loops. And the easiest way to do this is to do it by two finger breadths, tying the loop around, and you really want to try to get it as close to the mask as possible. But as you can see, we've just tied a simple little knot. Now to the other side. The next step is to kind of get it to form to your face initially. And that is by using the nose and the metal band, and then also pulling it down around your chin.

So obviously you can see here, there is still some gaps. The last part is trying to fold in those open gaps, fold it in around your face so that you can reduce the amount of open space around the mask and the face as much as possible. But once you do that, you should have as little amount of gap as possible. Again, this is all to improve the fit, to improve any open air exchange. If you are expressing the disease or the droplets out into the community, or if you are inhaling as well, this will help.

Doctor visiting with patient.

Learn more

For more information on masks and other ways to protect yourself from COVID-19, visit our update page. Check back often for the latest news about the novel coronavirus.

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