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Face covering myths debunked

Addressing the common misconceptions about face coverings using scientific evidence.

Face coverings are our greatest weapon against COVID-19 and one of the best tools for safely reopening the economy. Yet disinformation about face coverings are rampant. Here we address some common face covering myths using scientific evidence.

MYTH 1: Face coverings don’t stop the spread of the virus.

The research on this topic is clear—face coverings greatly reduce the spread of COVID-19. “If we could get everybody to wear a mask right now, I really think in the next four, six, eight weeks, we could bring this epidemic under control,” said Robert Redfield, director of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) during a webcast on July 14 after reviewing the latest scientific research.

It’s why the Utah Hospital Association has teamed up with Utah’s four largest health care providers to urge the public to wear face coverings in public and workplaces in the campaign called #MaskUpUtah.

“There is evidence from other respiratory diseases, specifically influenza and non-COVID-19 coronaviruses that masks do prevent transmission of these respiratory droplets or emission of them, and provide source control for people who are infected,” said Emily Spivak, associate professor of medicine in the Division of Infectious Diseases at U of U Health during a Facebook Live interview.

For a summary of the evidence we have on how face coverings prevent the novel coronavirus specifically, check out a report from BYU professor Ben Abbott. Abbott and four students compiled and interpreted more than 115 scientific studies on COVID-19. There is clear evidence face coverings significantly reduce the number of saliva droplets that spread when a person talks, coughs, sneezes or exhales—the primary way the virus is transmitted. The report includes numerous examples of communities that have successfully contained and reduced COVID-19 outbreaks with face coverings.

PHOTO CREDIT: Luat Nguyen/U of U Health

Credit: Luat Nguyen/U of U Health

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MYTH 2: Homemade cloth face coverings don’t work.

Cloth face coverings are very effective, according to Tom Miller, chief medical officer at U of U Health. “When you’re out in public and you’re going to the grocery store or you’re shopping and you’re in groups, cloth masks will do,” he said during an interview on U of U Health’s Scope podcast. “Simple cloth mask, covers nose and mouth, with ear loops, perfect.”

Unless you’re doing surgery, there’s no need to wear a face covering with special filters, called N95 masks. Face coverings block the majority of your saliva droplets from spreading into the air where other people can inhale it. They’re one of the best tools we have to reopen the economy responsibly.

“What we can do to bridge the gap to get back to work and to stay safe or as safe as we can be from this infection is to wear masks, practice physical distancing, and hand washing. This is the best way for us to reengage the economy and to stay as safe as possible,” Miller said in another Scope podcast episode.

Cloth face coverings are one of the surest ways to reduce transmission of COVID-19. Some face coverings, such as masks with exhalation vents used in construction, are not recommended for use by the CDC because they allow air to be exhaled into the environment. Additionally, a recent study called into question the effectiveness of neck gaitors—closed tubes of fabric primarily worn for warmth in the winter. However, the researchers were demonstrating a cheap way to test the effectiveness of face coverings, they didn’t do rigorous tests themselves. A different study even showed that a neck gaitor with a nose piece was the most effective at containing a cough than other face coverings. For all we know, a fitted neck gaitor might work just fine. To be safe, wear a cloth face covering when possible.

MYTH 3: Only older people should wear a face covering—they’re the ones who get hospitalized from COVID-19.

No! Face coverings are effective because they block a person’s saliva droplets from going into the air where they can be inhaled by someone else. While older adults have the highest risk of hospitalization and death from COVID-19, young people can spread the disease even without having symptoms. For this reason, it’s crucial that everyone wears a face covering.

Additionally, U of U Health is seeing lots of young Utahns being hospitalized from COVID-19.

“The rate of COVID-19 transmission in older adults is about half that of people who are younger than age 65. There’s a lot of young people getting hospitalized just because young people are getting infected with COVID-19 much more than older adults,” said Russell Vinik, chief medical operations officer at U of U Health during an interview on July 17.

People of all ages who are hospitalized for COVID-19 are there because they are extremely sick, Vinik continued. “The average stay for those who are hospitalized for COVID-19 is 5-7 days, and those people that go home are oftentimes still very ill. Many require oxygen for weeks if not months. Some of these people may require oxygen for the rest of their lives after a really severe illness. The data is still emerging on that. Please recognize that if you get sick, you may not just bounce back after such an infection. It could cause long-term harm.”

MYTH 4: Wearing a face covering reduces your oxygen intake, increases CO2

Many scientists and doctors have disproven this idea, including Mark Lewis, a medical oncologist and director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare. He posted a video where he measured his own oxygen levels while wearing 30 face coverings at the same time. The face coverings didn’t impact his oxygen levels. During an interview with ABC4, Lewis shared that he doesn’t have perfect lung health—he’s had cancer and a blood clot removed from his lungs in the past.

In a separate interview to KSL TV, Lewis stressed that the face covering doesn’t increase carbon dioxide levels either.

“When we breathe in, we’re taking in oxygen, and then when we exhale, we’re breathing out carbon dioxide,” he explained. “So you can’t have it both ways; the mask can’t be so porous that it’s letting in virus, but then so thick that it’s not letting these gases back and forth.”

MYTH 5: Face coverings increase your risk of getting a bacterial infection.

There is no evidence of this if you wash your face covering regularly. Although wearing a face covering in the Utah summer feels hot and humid, it doesn’t increase the risk of bacterial infection. The U of U Health’s recommendations for cleaning your face covering will reduce the risk of transmission of COVID-19 and other infections.

“The biggest thing is when you are wearing it, do your very, very best to just leave it on. Don’t take it on and off unless you absolutely have to. The theory there is you have a greater chance of contaminating both yourself and other surfaces if you’re constantly taking that mask on and off,” said Jeremy Biggs, the medical director of occupational medicine at U of U Health during a Scope podcast interview in April.

Anytime you touch your face covering—including when you put it on or take it off—wash or sanitize your hands.

MYTH 6: I don’t need to socially distance when I wear a face covering

The best line of defense against the virus is wearing a face covering, social distancing and washing hands. When possible, do all three. 

MYTH 7: I don’t have to wear a face covering outside because sunlight kills the virus.

It’s generally safer to be outdoors than indoors, but you can still contract the virus outside. Sunlight doesn’t kill the virus particles immediately. A recent study found that “SARS‐CoV‐2 should be inactivated relatively fast [11 to 34 minutes of mid-day sun] during summer in many populous cities of the world.” However, the data only applied to virus particles on various surfaces, not to virus particles that were transmitted person-to-person.