A face covering used to prevent the spread of you-know-what is typically a 12 square inch piece of fabric positioned over your mouth and nose. They are mandated in public spaces in 34 states and many feel strongly about whether or not they have to or should be wearing them right now.
Some say it’s an infringement upon our rights as American citizens.
Others think they are harmful to our health.
And many think they are the only effective device towards mitigating the spread of COVID-19.
You’ve probably heard it all by now — conspiracies, concerns, discontent — but what is the truth behind wearing a face-covering, for potential hours at a time on end? I wanted to find out, so I emailed Dr. Michael Fischman, M.D., a Clinical Professor of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.
Firstly, I wanted to know if there are side-effects of wearing face masks for prolonged periods of time. Just how healthy is it?
“For virtually all individuals there are no side-effects from wearing a face mask, other than possible irritation of facial skin from the occlusion of the mask to the face,” Dr. Fischman said. “There are a very small group of individuals who may not tolerate wearing a mask, primarily individuals with severe lung disease such as uncontrolled asthma or emphysema. This difficulty is not likely to be a concern among a healthy population of skiers.”
“A large review evaluating 44 studies regarding COVID-19 and other coronavirus diseases found a 77% reduction in risk of infection with the use of face masks. Face masks protected the user of the mask as well as others (by capturing droplets that might otherwise infect susceptible people). In another large trial, the combination of face masks and hand hygiene with alcohol-based hand sanitizer resulted in a maximum 75% reduced rate of influenza-like illnesses. (Chu – Physical distancing, face masks, and eye protection to prevent person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2 and COVID-19 2020.)”
“Compared with N95 respirators; the use of medical masks did not increase laboratory-confirmed viral (including coronaviruses) respiratory infection (OR 1.06; 95% CI 0.90-1.2 I2 = 0%; low certainty in the evidence) or clinical respiratory illness (OR 1.49; 95% CI: 0.98-2.28; I2 = 78%; very low certainty in the evidence).” (Bartoszko Medical masks vs N95 respirators for preventing COVID-19 in healthcare workers 2020) Disposable medical/surgical masks are probably more effective than multi-layer cloth masks. Bandanas have been shown to have little if any efficacy. The other non-pharmaceutical interventions that reduce risk of transmission are physical distancing (> 6 feet) and frequent handwashing.”
Like virtually all healthcare professionals in the industry right now, Dr. Fischman is an extremely busy man so I sent him a thank you email and went on my way. What I took away from our brief correspondence is this:
There is no magic method for preventing COVID-19. You have to do your best to physically distance yourself and take coordinated precautions such as wearing face masks, washing your hands, and keeping your immune system up. However, there is really no downside to wearing a face-covering in public besides potentially feeling weird about it. And, at the end of the day, it’s just a piece of fabric that could lower your chances of extreme illness or even death by up to 77%. So why take the chance?