Making sense of the mystery of mask wearing for COVID-19

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Kurt Gambla

With so many opinions about face masks and cloth face coverings, it might be hard to distinguish what is based on good science and what is fiction. Let's look at some of the more common things you may be hearing:

• "We used to hear that we shouldn't wear masks. Why change now?"

COVID-19 is a new disease and experts around the world are learning new things about it every day. As more data has become available and new things discovered, many recommendations have evolved and they will continue to do so.

The recommendation for everyone to wear face coverings or masks came about after the discovery that the virus can be transmitted in aerosolized particles when someone speaks or breathes heavily, not just in larger droplets from a sneeze or cough.

• "I'm not afraid of catching COVID-19 or at risk for serious complications, so I don't need a mask."

Generally, masks are recommended for two reasons - to protect the wearer from being infected (keeping germs out) or to protect others from being infected by the wearer (keeping germs in).

Current guidelines for the public fall into the second category. Since you can have the virus without realizing it and be contagious, wearing a mask protects those around you should you have COVID-19.

• "All of the Governor's restrictions have been relaxed, so we don't need to worry anymore."

Wearing face coverings and masks and other precautions are an important part of the plan for safely reopening our economy. In the Governor's press conferences, he continues to encourage us to wear masks and practice social distancing.

Taking precautions to minimize the spread of this virus will help our economy in the long run by keeping consumers healthy and making them feel safe in businesses and restaurants.

Until a time when we have an effective vaccine that is widely used, we need to work together to protect the health of all.

• "Continuous mask wearing can make you sick from inhaling carbon dioxide."

Cloth face coverings are not airtight and hold little if any carbon dioxide from your exhalations, so it would not cause carbon dioxide poisoning. Even with health care workers who routinely wear masks for hours at a time, this isn't a common issue.

• "Wearing a mask could harm me because I have asthma (or COPD, or some other condition)."

Having underlying health conditions like asthma or COPD places you at higher risk for serious complications. Given that, it is even more important to follow all the precautions to avoid contracting COVID-19. If you're concerned about how wearing a mask might affect a health condition, you should speak with your primary care provider.

Bottom line, there really aren't any good reasons to not wear a mask.

As we return to many aspects of normal life, it is important to not let our guard down. COVID-19 will continue to be a threat until an effective vaccine is developed and in wide use. Until then, taking simple precautions - including wearing a mask in congested public spaces, social distancing and handwashing - are the best ways to prevent the spread of the virus.

Kurt Gambla, D.O., is a board-certified internist and chief medical officer at Beaufort Memorial Hospital.

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