Medical professionals want people to know that wearing face masks ― whether store-bought or homemade ― is not an excuse to neglect social distancing rules.
“As far as face masks versus social distancing by at least 6 feet, the face masks do not replace social distancing,” said Peter Gulick, an infectious disease specialist and professor of medicine at Michigan State University.
He added that makeshift masks may be useful in situations like supermarkets and pharmacies where you cannot always guarantee the two-meter rule, but these masks should not be used as a replacement for the rule.
“They are not to be used so that you can get closer to other people,” Gulick said.
Here’s why, and how both measures are needed to slow the spread of the virus.
A mask is supposed to help people not to catch your germs
Recommendations from the World Health Organization and the CDC early on in the coronavirus outbreak stated that it wasn’t necessary to wear a face mask unless you were sick when it would prevent you from spreading germs or the virus to other people.
Now that’s true even if you do not feel sick. Experts have learned that many people infected with COVID-19 are asymptomatic, with some research even suggesting that up to 50% of people with coronavirus may not display symptoms.
It’s been suggested that we should behave like we already have coronavirus at this point. By covering your face in public, you are helping others to stay safe from anything you may be carrying. So it’s more about their protection than your own own.
Your mask may not be filtering out all of the viruses
Safeguarding with a face mask is better than none at all, but it still isn’t a guarantee ― especially with face masks you make at home.
“In terms of the protection conferred by DIY cloth masks and bandanas, the evidence is overall inconclusive,” said Lili Barsky, a Los Angeles-area urgent care provider.
Barsky added that masks do not protect our eyes, another possible means by which the virus can be transmitted. “The COVID-19 particles are also thought to be small enough to be able to pass through these masks or get retained in the fabric, and even medical-grade masks do not provide 100% protection,” she said.
Gary Slutkin, former chief of intervention development at the World Health Organization, also said that masks are not airtight. “They leak air along the sides and are hard to wear correctly. The virus can still get to you through the air if you are too close,” he said.
So, don’t expect masks to be a cure-all. They can, however, serve a purpose as a supplement to other healthy steps you take, explained Aimee Ferraro, an expert in epidemiology.
Ferraro said that in most cases, the coronavirus is spread through larger respiratory droplets that can be blocked at least partially by some sort of covering over the mouth and nose.
“In addition, there is a concept of harm reduction with infectious diseases that indicates decreasing the dose of a pathogen can allow your body more time to develop effective immunity,” she added. Face masks do offer a means of helping to reduce the “dose” of coronavirus that gets transmitted.
“Anything is better than nothing to reduce your risk for coronavirus infection,” Ferraro said.