Federal health officials now recommend people wear a face mask when out in public to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus. The new guideline follows a previous recommendation, issued in the early days of the outbreak, and comes as officials learn more about the disease and how it spreads.
Locally, Harris County is mandating residents over the age of 10 to wear a face covering for the next 30 days when in public. This mandate goes into effect on Monday, April 27. Residents are not required to wear medical grade or N95 masks. Scarves, cloth coverings or bandanas are acceptable as long as they cover the individual’s mouth and nose. Some exceptions to the rule will be made when exercising, eating, drinking, if you’re alone in a separate place or at your home. To read more from Harris County, visit the Harris County Public Health Department’s 2019 Novel Coronavirus website.
NOTE: Officials do not recommend the public use medical or surgical grade masks, since healthcare workers and hospitals require them for patient care.
Why did health officials change their recommendation?
Early in March, U.S. Surgeon General warned that people could actually increase their risk of infection if they wore masks incorrectly. The caution stemmed from the concern that people who do not know how to wear facemasks properly tend to touch their faces often to adjust or move the mask, increasing the possibility of spreading the virus from their hands to their face. Initially, experts were advising people to only wear masks if they had the illness or were caring for someone who did.
At the same time, officials were learning that the main way the coronavirus spreads from person to person is through droplets from coughs or sneezes. While that is still the case, new information suggests people can also spread the virus just by talking and breathing—even if they are asymptomatic. In other words, someone may be infected with the virus and able to pass it on to others, even if they are not showing symptoms themselves. Wearing a mask does not prevent you from contracting the virus, officials have said, but can help prevent you from spreading it to others.
How do I make a mask if I can’t use medical grade?
Hospitals and first responders continue to experience shortages of personal protection equipment, so health officials urge people to find alternatives to medical grade masks.
Around the world, people are finding innovative ways to make their own masks with items they can easily find in their homes. The Surgeon General demonstrated one way, using an old T-shirt and rubber bands, while many other people are using scarves, bandanas, other types of fabric, along with HEPA filters or other similar materials commonly found in household appliances such as air purifiers.
While using a mask is an important initial step, remember that a dirty mask doesn’t protect anyone. Wash cloth masks after each use, or dispose of those that can’t be washed.
What is the best way to protect myself from getting the virus?
While officials are recommending masks in public, they stress they are not a substitution for other precautions against the spread of the virus. Staying home is an essential measure, and going out only for essentials such as groceries or medications is still the best way to protect yourself. In the event you find yourself near other people, social distancing is critical to protect against the spread that can occur simply through breathing—make sure to maintain at least 6 feet between you and others.
Frequent handwashing with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, using hand sanitizer when soap is not available and disinfecting commonly touched surfaces can help stop germs from spreading from person to person both in your home and throughout the community.