The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people cover up their faces when they heading out in public. Some larger cities, like Los Angeles, are making this mandatory, and many across the nation are busy whipping up DIY cloth face masks if they can’t get their hands on ones elsewhere.
But medical professionals want you to know that wearing some sort of face protection ― whether store-bought or homemade ― is not an excuse to forgo social distancing mandates.
“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 grocery stores and pharmacies where you cannot always guarantee the 6-foot 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 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 virus
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 and senior core faculty in Walden University’s Master of Public Health program.
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.
Above all, know that covering your face is not a free pass to hang out with people
If you want to keep yourself and your community as coronavirus-free as possible, you need to keep social distancing. Face masks or any other protective measures do not replace the essential space you need to keep from others, according to Philip Robinson, director of infection prevention at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian in Newport Beach, California.
“Each person who self-isolates reduces their risk of infecting others dramatically,” Robinson said, adding that in 30 days’ time, a single individual who does not practice social isolation runs the risk of infecting hundreds of people.
“By reducing physical contact by 75%, that individual’s infection risk plummets to 2.5 people,” he said.
The bottom line is that “a mask may help to reduce the spread of the virus, but wearing a mask does not make you completely safe,” said David Fein, founder and medical director of the Princeton Longevity Center.
Social distancing ― along with safety measures like wearing masks ― is the only way we can truly slow the spread of the virus right now.
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Experts are still learning about the novel coronavirus. The information in this story is what was known or available as of press time, but its guidance concerning COVID-19 could change as scientists discover more about the virus. Please check the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for the most updated recommendations.