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Coronavirus: Face masks and face shields

You’ve likely already read a lot about the value of wearing a face mask when you are in public spaces. You’ve read less about face shields. Here’s what some experts are saying.

You should always wear a face mask when you are around other people, both to protect yourself and to protect them. Though there are a range of opinions on the value of face masks, unlike gloves, there is no downside to wearing one. And, the upside is big.

Some experts say that a face shield also will protect you and those around you, perhaps better than a mask. A face shield is a piece of curved plastic or Plexiglas that you wear over your eyes, nose and mouth.

Why you should wear a face mask when you are in public spaces

  1. You don’t know who’s healthy and who’s sick. People who seem healthy–who feel healthy–could be carrying the novel coronavirus and spreading it. One in four people infected with the virus are asymptomatic.
  2. You might feel healthy and be carrying the virus. Your face mask protects others from catching the novel coronavirus from you.

Even with a face mask, to protect yourself, you should limit your exposure to other people as much as possible, keep six feet from others when you are in public, and wash your hands regularly.

How does a mask compare to a face shield in terms of protection?

You don’t read a lot about face shields because there is not a lot of good data on their efficacy for the novel coronavirus. But, based on data on the protection a face shield offers for other viruses, some experts believe that a face shield could offer as good or better protection than a mask. It prevents you from spreading the virus. And, it arguably offers more protection from infection for you because it covers your eyes as well as your nose and mouth.

According to Eli Perencevich, MD, a professor of internal medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa Carver College of Medicine,“face shields appear to significantly reduce the amount of inhalation exposure to influenza virus, another droplet-spread respiratory virus. In a simulation study, face shields were shown to reduce immediate viral exposure by 96 percent when worn by a simulated health care worker within 18 inches of a cough.”

Pediatric infectious disease expert at the Cleveland Clinic, Frank Esper, MD, explains why a face shield could be preferable to a mask. “You don’t get to feel the breeze on your face, but you do get some fresh air, rather than trying to breathe through a cloth mask.” Moreover, face shields are easier to wear and you do not have to adjust them. They are also reusable and easy to clean.

If you opt to wear a shield, Perencevich advises that “the shield should extend below the chin anteriorly, to the ears laterally, and there should be no exposed gap between the forehead and the shield’s headpiece.”

And, Amesh Adalja, MD, a pandemic preparedness expert at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says you don’t need to wear a mask if you wear a face shield. AARP quotes Adalja: “I don’t think you get much added benefit to wearing a mask if you’ve already got a face shield on, for the average person.” The odds of the viral particles floating upwards under your shield are a long shot for most of us, he adds: “Someone would have to stand underneath you and sneeze up into you. It would be an odd circumstance that would cause that.”

However, while the face shield protects you, some believe that you will protect others better if you wear a mask. If you are carrying the virus and cough, the face shield will not catch the droplets as well as a mask.

The CDC recommends wearing a mask in public settings and has little to say one way or the other about face shields.

Why some people should wear a mask at home

Many experts believe that the novel coronavirus can linger in the air. If they are correct and you live in a multi-family home, it is possible that the virus can travel through the vents in your apartment from another unit in your building. That’s how some people appear to have been infected with the virus.

You should also wear a mask at home if someone in your home is sick. In that case, try to stay in a separate room and use a separate bathroom, if possible.

What kind of mask do you need to wear?

You don’t need a fancy mask. Simple masks help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus. They keep contagious droplets from circulating in the air, blocking almost all of them. If you do not wear a mask, you exhale droplets that can remain in the air.

Simple masks can also protect you from being infected. Much depends on how well your mask fits and what it is made of. A lot also depends upon whether you keep a six foot distance from others and wash your hands frequently.

How do you put the mask on?

Hold the mask by the ear loops when you put it on and take it off. Never touch the fabric piece of the mask with your hands. It filters the germs. If you touch it, you can spread the germs. Always wash your hands before putting your mask on and after taking it off.

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