Your homemade mask protects everyone else from COVID-19. Does it help you, too?

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Last week, the Centers for Disease Control changed its guidelines on homemade coronavirus masks, recommending that Americans wear the cloth coverings over their nose and mouth whenever they are in public. One thing hasn’t changed, however: Officials still say the masks aren’t for protecting the wearer from getting COVID-19. They’re for preventing wearers who have the virus – including those who are asymptomatic – from spreading it.

We wondered: Why not both? If the masks help stop the wearer’s respiratory droplets from getting into the air or on a surface, shouldn’t they also help prevent someone else’s droplets from getting into the wearer’s nose and mouth?

We asked Dr. Elizabeth Tilson, North Carolina’s health director and the Chief Medical Officer for the Department of Health and Human Services. “That’s an intuitive question,” she said, but before she answered it, she wanted to make something clear about wearing a mask. “It’s not a substitute for everything else,” she said.

Tilson is a little uneasy with the CDC’s new recommendation, not because it’s bad public health but because she’s worried it might make people too comfortable about being among others. “It’s one piece,” she says. The other pieces – staying at home whenever possible and staying 6 feet away from people when in public – remain the best strategies.

Got it? Now back to our question. Why do federal officials say homemade masks are about preventing the wearer from spreading the virus? It’s about “source containment,” Tilson says. Because a mask is close to your nose and mouth, she says, it’s more effective at preventing respiratory drops from getting airborne.

But, she says, that does work both ways. “If you’re out in public and you’re within three to six feet of a person, then your mask can give you a layer of protection,” she says.

So there you go. Masks can be good for the wearer, too. But again, Tilson says, people should not grow overconfident about being out in public just because of the bandana you have over your face. And if you are wearing a mask, make sure you use them correctly. That means:

1) Cover both your mouth and nose, and don’t move it to speak. “If you’re going to wear it, commit,” Tilson says;

2) Don’t touch it. It might have respiratory droplets on it, and getting that on your hands defeats the purpose of wearing the thing;

3) Touch the strings but not the mask when you remove it, dispose of it, or throw it in the wash.

The most important tip of all is – you guessed it – stay at home. North Carolinians have largely been social distancing, and because of that researchers have cut the projected COVID-19 death toll for the state. “We’re doing better,” Tilson says, “but we’re not out of the woods.” Homemade masks are an additional tool. Save the real ones for medical professionals. And wear yours smartly.

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