When to Wear a Face Mask
It seems like everyone is fighting over when to wear a face mask. Some people don’t want to wear one at all. I just hopped on Twitter and was blessed with watching a video of a man telling his viewers that they can take their face masks and stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. Some people view face mask mandates as an affront against personal liberties and even make fun of the “sheeple” who are wearing one because they are “brainwashed” by a “controlling” government. People wear face masks for different reasons. Some wear them, because it’s the rule, and they want to follow the rules. Others wear them, because they believe they’re helping reduce transmission of COVID-19. I’m sure some wear them mostly out of fear, and even wear them at times when it’s really okay not to wear them. Then there are the trendy folks who wear the more fashionable face masks. I know a woman here in NYC who bought ten or twelve different face mask designs on Etsy. I’ll admit, they’re cute. The gist of the many takes on face masks is that no one really knows when to wear them.
While I try to follow evidence-based recommendations, my journey with face masks, and when to wear a face mask, has been jumbled. When the CDC first announced that everyone should wear a face mask, I hopped on Amazon and tried to purchase one, but they were sold out. The CDC also said that you could wear a bandana when a face mask wasn’t available, and I did. I actually wore my dog’s bandanas around my face, though I question if they actually did anything, besides make me look silly. Luckily my dad, a veterinarian and owner of the Trucksville Dog and Cat Hospital, mailed me a few surgical masks. Whenever I walked my dog around the city or went to a store, the post office or any place indoors, I wore a surgical mask. I usually wear contacts, but if I wore my glasses instead, my face mask experience became more complicated, because my glasses would fog. Then I couldn’t see where I was going, so potentially I could have walked right into a COVID-19 positive person, or a bus, and successfully sabotage all of my mitigation efforts. To prevent my glasses from fogging, I tried to tuck the face mask under the bottom edge of my glasses. Sometimes it worked, but when it didn’t, I often slipped the mask down, so it only covered my mouth and not my nose. That’s not a correct nor effective way to wear a face mask, and though I knew that, I did it anyways. I’m human. That’s what happens. I also wore each surgical face mask multiple times, to the point that the masks became visibly dirty. The straps weakened. One time, when I was out walking my dog, the strap snapped, and I was suddenly without a mask. Another time, midway through a conversation in the park with a neighbor, my neighbor said, “Erin, your face mask is so dirty.” She was right. It was so dirty, I don’t know why I thought I could pull it off.
After that comment, I went back on Amazon and bought two multi-functional, super colorful pieces of cloth that can act like a scarf or a face mask. They’re cute, but I struggle to breathe in them. When I try to breathe, the cloth is so flimsy that it gets sucked into my mouth or nostrils. Speaking of breathing, I want to mention I’m a runner. I run five to six times a week. Anyone who is a runner knows how important breath regulation is. If your breathing is off, your run will be off, and you could potentially do a number on your heart or lungs. I have asthma, so regulating my breath during my run is vital. In the beginning of the outbreak, I tried running in a surgical mask, but I couldn’t regulate my breathing. A couple times, it caused me to panic. Still, here in NYC, people were actively shaming anyone, including runners, who didn’t wear a face mask. A photographer I know took a series of photos of runners not wearing their masks with the sole goal of shaming them. I tried to comply, but ultimately I found a compromise that worked. While I was out running one day, I made a video of my new running & face mask policy, which you can watch here. ( Be warned, I’m gross and sweaty, but I am wearing an awesome ZENBand!)
Then the World Health Organization put out conflicting messages about when to wear a face mask. At first they said everyone should wear one, then they said only sick people should wear one, and then they took that back and again said that everyone should wear them. There has been a lot of confusing or inconsistent public health messaging during this pandemic, and I recently wrote an article about that on Medium.
During one of my literature reviews for new and interesting studies, I stumbled across a recent study on face masks published in Nature Medicine.
One of the authors was Dr. Benjamin Cowling, the Head of the Division of Epidemiology and Biostatics at the School of Public Health in Hong Kong University. He’s been researching the pandemic since its initial outbreak in Wuhan, China, and also happened to be the author of one of the earliest COVID-19 papers published in the New England Journal of Medicine. In addition to leading the Epidemiology department, he is the co-director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Center for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control. His primary area of research is infectious disease epidemiology, including modes of respiratory virus transmission, influenza vaccination effectiveness and immunity to infections on the individual and population level. He works closely with China CDC and the NIGMS-funded Harvard Center for Communicable Disease Dynamics, and he has over 426 publications. I said to myself, if anyone knows when to wear a face mask, it’s him. I reached out to him over email, explained my Causes or Cures podcast and he agreed to be interviewed.
I highly recommend listening to this interview, even if you are dead-set against wearing a face mask. He’s not only very knowledgeable on this topic, but I found his recommendations to be very reasonable. I also want to point out that he’s a British guy living and working in Hong Kong. Why does that matter? Because the discussion around the US pandemic is tainted with political biases, and I want people to know that he is completely outside our toxic, two-party political system. It’s a breath of fresh air, I know.
What will you learn if you listen to this podcast?
- When to wear a face mask
- What the best type of face mask to wear is ( His response surprised me, so it might surprise you)
- When to replace a face mask, since most of them were designed for single use.
- If you should or should not wear a face mask while running
- The difference in transmission rates between outdoors and indoors
- The truth about asymptomatic spread
- His thoughts on who will most benefit from a vaccine
- His thoughts on what will happen to COVID-19 and what’s in store for our future
While I could summarize the podcast for you, it won’t do it justice. Plus, context is so important. I hope you guys listen to it, get something out of it, and share it if you find it helpful. Please consider becoming a subscriber, and if you ever have any suggestions for podcast topics, email me. I have a blast doing this podcast, and I’ve learned so much, but in addition to that, I want it to be useful for my listeners. There are a lot of hot, controversial health topics out there, many that are confusing, s0 we should be having intelligent conversations about them. We should be picking the experts’ brains. We should be taking experts’ opinions and make them easy for everyone to understand. As I always say, most of health and wellness is effective communication.
Click here to listen to my interview with Dr. Benjamin Cowling.
- The audiobook of Yours in Wellness, Krystal Heeling is Out! I would love for you guys to check it out. If you click here, it explains my motivation for writing the shorty comedy and tells you where you can get the book.
- I’m having a blast combining science, wellness and humor on Instagram. Come say Hi!
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