Covid-19 Safety: How Much Do Masks Really Protect You?

Marc Alan-Smith, Reporter, Writer

When Covid-19 hit, the majority of the country mandated the usage of masks in public places along with social distancing and quarantine if you show symptoms. Greenbrier County Public Schools requires folks to wear masks in any county school or building for most people. Likewise, Governor Justice has mandated masks in other public buildings where social distancing cannot be maintained.

The health benefits of wearing a mask have been questioned by some people. We reached out to Paula McCoy, RN, NCSN, Lead School Nurse, Greenbrier County Schools for her expert information.  She stated that “Earlier in the pandemic the scientists indicated that wearing a face mask just protected others around us.  Now we know that the face mask (even a cotton one) provides some level of protection to the wearer also.”

“Cloth face masks are helpful to prevent the spread of the coronavirus that causes COVID-19 by trapping saliva or mucus droplets that contain the virus.  The virus is extremely small and could easily pass through fabric, but it must have a medium to travel on, and thankfully those droplets are large in comparison to a tightly woven cotton fabric.  Stopping those droplets stops the virus from entering the wearer’s mucous membranes.  This is also an important reason not to touch your face mask because the exterior of it may contain droplets that were released by others who may not be wearing a face covering.”  Paula McCoy, RN, NCSN, Lead School Nurse, GC

However, the reliability and efficiency of different kinds of masks is highly varied. For example, a medical mask is more protective than a bandanna tied around your neck.  While they can still be considered masks, bandannas and handkerchiefs, helmets, and cloth masks will NOT protect you from the coronavirus as well as a surgical mask or N95 mask. (Although no mask can protect you 100%, scientists have done tests to determine that some cloth coverings offer more protection to yourself and others

Cloth masks may prevent the inhalation of dust and debris, but you can still be exposed to air carrying the virus. The CDC states that N95 masks are more reliable than almost any other mask. “An N95 FFR is a type of respirator which removes particles from the air that are breathed through it. These respirators filter out at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles. N95 FFRs are capable of filtering out all types of particles, including bacteria and viruses. Unlike NIOSH-approved N95s, facemasks are loose-fitting and provide only barrier protection against droplets, including large respiratory particles. No fit testing or seal check is necessary with facemasks. Most regular facemasks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.”

However, even N95 masks (pictured at right) have their limits. Most N95 masks have a valve located at the front of the mask that allows the user to breathe easier and more normally. The mask may have thick mesh and tight-fitting edges to prevent inhalation of potentially harmful substances, but it allows unfiltered exhalation. That makes these masks perfectly safe and effective for healthy individuals but completely useless for those already infected with the virus because they could spread their contagion through the air vent to others.

People have made several claims against wearing masks, including carbon dioxide concentration in the bloodstream, or hypercapnia. The Facebook and Twitter posts go as follows. “Wearing masks causes hypercapnia which causes severe respiratory problems which will be BLAMED on 2nd wave of Covid, not the masks,” the post stated. The post featured an illustration from Wikimedia Commons, which was labeled as showing “carbon dioxide toxicity.” 

However, there is no proof of this. “There’s no evidence that wearing a mask will trap the virus in the nose and lead to an infection in the brain, said Sarah Stanley, associate professor of infectious diseases and vaccinology at the University of California, Berkeley School of Public Health. “Keep in mind that many people —for example surgeons or certain kinds of scientists—have routinely worn masks for long periods of time without clear adverse effects,” Stanley said. “With how common mask wearing has always been, even before COVID-19, we would know if hypercapnia was a problem with wearing masks.”

In conclusion, while the usage of everyday face-coverings are essential in preventing the spread of Covid-19, be aware that that does not mean you’re completely safe from Covid-19 by using them. Wearing an N95 mask is one of the safest ways to protect yourself and others from Covid-19 (especially is you wear a shield).