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A Look At The Conflicting, And Confusing, Information Around Wearing Masks

Matt Rourke
In this Thursday, March 26, 2020, photo, Terrell Bell, wearing a protective face mask, looks at a learning guide he picked up for his little sister at John H. Webster Elementary School in Philadelphia.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the White House Coronavirus Task Force are both reviewing official guidance that people who are healthy don’t need to wear face masks during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

If the federal government changes its stance, that would be a big deal: Just more than a month ago, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams urged the public, in no uncertain terms, to stop buying face masks.

The World Health Organization also recommends that people not wear face masks unless they are sick or caring for someone with COVID-19. The logic is that only N-95 respirators are shown to be effective against the coronavirus, and those should be reserved for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Others have also worried that people wearing masks might let up on other social distancing and hygiene measures, such as regular hand washing.

Some scientists and health officials both at home and abroad have criticized the U.S. for its lack of mask-wearing. The practice has been widespread in China and South Korea for months, and Austria, the Czech Republic and Slovakia now require masks be worn in all public places. 

What different types of masks are good for

The novel coronavirus is transmitted via droplets that are emitted when an infected person coughs, sneezes or even just talks. Large droplets can settle on surfaces, which is why everyone is encouraged to sanitize shared surfaces and wash their hands frequently. But small droplets can linger in the air for an hour or more.

When used properly, N-95 respirators filter 95% of these small droplets; these masks fit snugly around the face and have “minimal leakage.” These are the masks most in demand for frontline health care workers who regularly come into contact with COVID-19 patients.

Surgical masks are loose-fitting and made of fabric, and are intended to protect wearers from bodily fluids, large droplets, splashes and sprays. These masks do not filter out air particles and, because they are loose fitting, they can still allow smaller droplets to be inhaled.

Homemade cloth masks generally offer the least amount of protection. They can protect against large droplets but not small ones, and typically have a loose seal around the face.

‘My mask protects you and your mask protects me’

While both Pennsylvania and Allegheny County officials are continuing to hold the line on federal mask guidance, a growing international movement is urging everyone to wear masks anytime they go out in public.

On Sunday, Republican Sen. Pat Toomey became the first member of the U.S. Congress to endorse the #Masks4All movement

“I’m not talking about the high-quality, surgical-quality masks that we need to save for health care professionals,” said Toomey in a video posted to Twitter. “Just a homemade mask … or a bandana. Something that we can put over our nose and mouth.”

The point of the movement isn’t necessarily to protect the person wearing the mask, but to protect everyone with whom the wearer comes into contact. According to the CDC, as many as 25 percent of those infected with COVID-19 could be asymptomatic and unknowingly spreading the virus.

“My mask protects you and your mask protects me,” said Allegheny County Health Department Director Dr. Debra Bogen during a press conference on Tuesday. “That is what I want you to remember. If you decide to wear a mask in public, it's not about protecting you. Rather, it's really to protect the others. If you unknowingly have the virus but aren't aware of it.”


Grassroots efforts to make and donate homemade face masks have popped up in Pittsburgh and around the country. There are also people 3-D printing masks and other personal protective equipment.


Last week, both Allegheny Health Network and UPMC announced they were expanding their masking protocols.  At AHN, all employees working in clinical areas of the hospital are given surgical masks; at UPMC, all hospital employees and visitors are required to don surgical masks.