Clearing the air about masks: Do they work? How are they most effective?

Coronavirus
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CHICAGO — There have been so many questions about masks. At first doctors said only wear them if you are sick, then they said others may need to protect themselves. 

There are reports of shortages and people stepping up to make masks — from companies to individuals sewing face masks. 

Face masks have become part of our daily lives. Sightings on the street are common. However, Lurie Children’s infectious disease expert Dr. Larry Kociolek says if you’re not sick, skip the mask.

“You’ll have much more protection from avoiding contact with sick people and from washing your hands well after having contact with high touch surfaces part before eating or putting hands on face eyes or mouth,” Kociolek said.

If you are experiencing symptoms and leave the house to seek medical care, use a regular mask to cover your mouth and nose. Use the nose clips to secure the fit.

“What that does is it limits the amount of airflow and aerosols that can be projected from outside the mask,” Kociolek said. 

Inside the hospital, masks serve different purposes. A regular surgical or procedural mask often does the trick when it comes to protecting healthcare workers during routine exams and evaluations, even if the patient is sick. But for certain higher-risk procedures, more protective gear is needed — that’s where the N95 mask comes in.

 “In general, we wouldn’t expect anyone in the public to require an N95 that’s really meant to protect the healthcare worker,” Kociolek said. “N95s provide a higher degree of protection against something we call resp aerosols, so things generated from patients who have a very deep cough. And so N95 masks provide a higher level of protection than normal procedural or surgical masks and should be worn during procedures when patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 may be generating more of those aerosols and contaminating the healthcare environment to a higher degree than would otherwise.”

Supply is a concern. In an ideal situation, personal protective equipment, or PPE, is designed to be used once. Now, healthcare workers are trying to safely extend the shelf life of critical supplies.

“We are identifying ways that we can safely reuse our equipment so we will for example wear for an extended amount of time and only dispose if we think it’s contaminated with droplets potentially infected droplets from another patient or if becomes soiled or damaged,” Kociolek said. 

The doctor said if social distancing is working, the situation may last another three or four months. He said we need to get through this while protecting healthcare workers. 

In regards to the homemade masks being crafted by well-intentioned community members, some places have been overwhelmed with the generosity of the public. However, Kociolek said one thing healthcare workers take pause with is that they may not want to necessarily commit to using something that hasn’t undergone rigorous testing to ensure that it can be protective.

 “That being said currently there are a lot of settings that may not have enough PPE and in those situations, we may ultimately need to rely on some of these personal protective equipment homemade by skilled individual,” he said.

Most hospitals have regular masks at the entrance. You can also put a scarf over your face and if you are bringing a child in, cover their head gently with a blanket to limit droplets. 

Doctors at Lurie Children’s Hospital are looking at ultraviolet light techniques to disinfect equipment.

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