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Should everyone in the general public be wearing masks?
Staying apart from other people is our best protection against COVID-19, but non-medical masks can be a supplement. Before deciding to wear a mask, Public Health recommends people keep two considerations central:
Medical masks should be reserved for healthcare providers who are on the front lines working to protect us all. We have had shortages of those masks and it’s critically important that our healthcare workers have the equipment they need to do their jobs.
Non-medical mask use (e.g., homemade fabric masks) does not replace the need to follow guidance to stay home and limit our contact with others. It does not replace frequent hand-washing, avoiding touching the face, and staying away from people who are ill. These are the most important steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 illness.
How might homemade cloth mask use in the general public help slow the spread of COVID-19?
Wearing a fabric mask can help prevent the spread of infection to others when the mask is worn by someone who already is infected with the virus that causes COVID-19, even if they don’t have symptoms. The mask will block infectious droplets from spreading when someone with the infection coughs, sneezes and, to a lesser degree, speaks.
To be effective, masks should be worn consistently and properly so as not to contaminate the hands or face of the user, and fabric masks should be changed when moist and washed after use. Masks that have been worn may be contaminated with infectious agents.
What about if I make my own masks or repurpose things around the house like bandanas?
Well-designed homemade or commercially manufactured masks for the public that do not draw on the supply needed by health care workers may provide some benefit, although that is uncertain. It is important for homemade or other masks to be well made, fit well, and be properly cleaned or sanitized.
To be most effective, masks should be worn consistently and properly so as not to contaminate the hands or face of the user, and fabric masks should be changed when moist and washed after use.
Most importantly, mask use should not make people less likely to take more important steps to prevent COVID-19 infection like staying home and avoiding all non-essential activities and contact with others, frequent hand-washing, and not touching the face (eyes, nose and mouth).
What if I am caring for a loved one that is symptomatic?
If you are caring for a loved one with a respiratory infection, you and your loved one should both wear masks when you are in close contact. If only one mask is available, give it to the person who is ill to wear.
If no masks are available, help your loved one cover their cough when you are in the room. For instance, ask your loved one to cover their cough with a bandana, a sheet, or a blanket. These will not stop the spread of viral particles but may limit the distance of spread.
People who are interested in more information on alternative personal protective equipment (PPE) can look to the WA Department of Health’s Guidance for Caregivers. It is still unclear how effective these strategies are and whether there is any potential risk of using alternatives to traditional PPE.