MultiCare expert says: when in public, wear a mask, skip the face shield
COVID-19 cases are once again increasing. Early hopes that the summer season would provide a break from the pandemic have been put aside; re-opening efforts have been halted or delayed; and hospitalization rates in some areas are creeping back up, even as we draw ever closer to flu season.
“The United States has risen to levels that we really haven't seen even in the earlier spring,” says Michael Myint, MD, Epidemiologist and Infectious Disease specialist with MultiCare, “And in Washington state, we're also seeing levels that are higher than our initial peak in the spring time.”
As we learn more about the novel coronavirus, the virus that causes COVID-19, most health experts are now in agreement that wearing a cloth face mask or other face covering in indoor public spaces — as well as outdoors when six-foot distancing can’t be maintained — is a critically important step we all need to take to help get this pandemic under control.
“Masking has been one of the more effective ways that the countries that have controlled the disease have done so, including our neighbors to the north in Canada, as well as European and Asian countries,” says Dr. Myint. “Masking has been a key and critical component to their success in decreasing the number of cases, some down to almost close to zero.”
Masks work in two ways: They keep healthy people from being exposed to the virus and they keep sick people from spreading it. And because those who have COVID-19 can pass on the virus before they show symptoms, it’s not enough to limit mask wearing to those who are obviously sick.
“We know it's effective. We know that it protects you and the community around you,” says Dr. Myint. “All of us have vulnerable people in our lives, be it friends or family, parents, grandparents. When everyone is wearing masks in the community, it has an additive effect of keeping each of those folks safe.”
What about face shields?
While mostly minor, wearing a mask does have its downsides. They can make breathing feel restricted and make it harder to understand what people are saying. Wearing one can be uncomfortable, especially for long periods of time or in warm weather. And, of course, for small children and individuals with specific health conditions, wearing a mask can pose serious risks.
To address these issues, some have turned to plastic face shields as an alternative to masks. But does science back up this swap?
“We know for sure is that face shields are very good for eye protection,” says Dr. Myint. “So for those people who have immunocompromised conditions and need to be out, face shields can help in adjunct to a respiratory mask to protect the eyes and help prevent people from touching their face.”
“The controversy comes with whether or not it can be a replacement for a mask,” he continues. “There's limited evidence of this. Masks have a lot more evidence behind them.”
The Centers for Disease Control agrees.
“It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles,” the agency states on their website. “CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for cloth face coverings.”
In other words, they do not recommend that the general public use face shields instead of masks when going about their daily activities they would currently be using a face mask for.
“There's ongoing study in this,” Dr. Myint acknowledges, “Because face shields sometimes are better tolerated than masks. It allows people to see facial expressions in others. So for certain populations, for example, people who are deaf who need to read lips, face shields may be a reasonable alternative because the risks of them not being able to communicate or read lips is a weighing factor.”
“But right now,” he continues, “At least in Washington state, we're not recommending that face shields be used as an alternative for masks yet outside of individual circumstances.”
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Maura is an experienced writer and editor who writes extensively about health and wellness topics, from fitness and nutrition to medical insurance.
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