After ten months of living in a pandemic caused by a respiratory virus, most people are already familiar with the use of face masks, staying socially distanced, and washing the hands very often. However, a lot of people still don’t understand exactly how and when to wear a face mask, including situations in which staying socially distanced is possible.

In the United States, a lot of businesses have opened with biosecurity measures, but people get confused with the multiple recommendations they read online. In this article, we’ll explain exactly why wearing a face mask is necessary even when social distancing from other people. 

First, it’s important to understand what COVID-19 is and how it’s spread

This disease is a respiratory infectious disease, and this means it’s caused by a microorganism that can be transmitted from one person to another, and it enters the body through and mainly affects the respiratory system. When an infected person coughs or sneezes, or even just talks or breathes, they release little droplets of respiratory fluids through their mouth and nose that contain viral particles. If these particles reach the respiratory tract of an uninfected person, they become infected.

This virus, known as the SARS-CoV-2, causes damage to the respiratory system at varying levels. Some people, mainly kids and younger people, develop very mild symptoms that could be mistaken for a common cold or the flu. Other people develop more serious forms of the disease, severely affecting the lungs and needing a mechanical ventilator to breathe properly. The most affected age group is the elderly, as well as people with certain conditions like immunosuppression or diabetes.

The majority of the cases are very mild, so you might wonder why we’ve seen hospitals and other healthcare facilities collapse throughout the USA. This is because a lot of people are getting infected at the same time, which makes the percentage of severe cases much more prominent, and the influx of patients has surpassed the capacity of most facilities.

The use of face masks has been the most powerful resource to keep the transmission of the virus under control. Since many people can be spreading the disease without knowing it, because asymptomatic and mild cases can still release particles into the air, the use of face masks has to be universal, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Why should I use a face mask even when staying socially distanced from other people?

The SARS-CoV-2 has been considered an airborne particle by some experts because it has a size smaller than 0.3 micrometers. This would mean they could potentially travel distances longer than six feet, contaminating people who are standing more than six feet apart from each other.

For this reason, face masks should be used even when you are more than six feet away from other people. In closed spaces with poor ventilation, even by staying six feet apart, the risk of infection is even higher, which is why they use of a face mask in any public setting, even if you’re six feet away from other people, is recommended.

A mnemonic technique to remember the most important measures to take during the pandemic is “the three W’s”: wearing a mask, watching your distance, and washing your hands. Out of the three, the most important one, according to experts, is wearing a face mask. The biggest risk of transmission is through inhaled droplets, while fomites (contaminated surfaces) are only a smaller percentage of the ways of infection.

However, it’s important to implement the three measures at all times. Even if you’re wearing a mask, remember to keep your distance, and even if you keep your distance, wear your face mask. And always wash your hands after touching any surfaces. The combination of the three measures ensures a very high virus protection.

Which are the best face masks for each public setting?

In healthcare settings, the most effective face mask is the N95 mask. Also known as the N95 respirator, this mask has a very high antiviral filtering activity, which is why they’re considered the best option for healthcare workers who are in constant and close exposure to the virus.

These masks can not only filter out viruses, but also other respiratory hazards found in other work settings, such as dust and smoke, giving them multiple uses outside the healthcare field as well.

KN95 masks, which are also respirators with the same 95% efficacy for filtering out non-oil based airborne particles as N95 masks, have been used inside the USA when N95 masks aren’t available. However, they are regulated by Chinese standards, while the latter is regulated by American standards.

Surgical masks are also used in the healthcare field when N95 masks aren’t available. However, their filtering properties are limited to large particles only, like bacteria, and therefore aren’t the preferred option for virus protection.

All these medical-grade disposable face masks, as well as other supplies like gloves, gowns, and face shields, have been difficult to find for sale even in online stores, and hospitals usually need to buy them in bulk and wholesale to protect their workers from the virus as they work.

To make sure these shortages are alleviated, the CDC recommends the general public to wear reusable cloth masks, which are considered enough for most daily public activities, like taking public transportation or going to the grocery store. Cloth masks are found very easily anywhere, and can also be made at home. They’re cleanable and reusable, too. 

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