Debunking mask myths that put us at risk

September 2, 2020  //  FOUND IN: Updates & Resources,

You’ve heard it time and again: One of the easiest and most effective ways to limit the spread of COVID-19 is by wearing face masks. That’s true whether you are in a Michigan Medicine facility, at the grocery store or just hanging out with friends and family who live outside your immediate household.

Yet, there are still many myths about masks that risk undermining public health efforts to contain the pandemic.

Headlines recently caught up with a Michigan Medicine expert to learn the truth about masks – and why these myths continue to permeate society:

Myth: The mask only protects others, not the wearer.

Truth: Masks actually protect both the wearer and others around them.

The No. 1 goal of masks is to contain people’s germs and prevent them from reaching others.

“A recent study found that if an individual is unmasked, their droplets can travel about eight feet,” said Amanda Valyko, M.P.H., the director of infection prevention and epidemiology at Michigan Medicine. “But if you are wearing a mask, droplets travel less than one foot.”

Valyko said there are benefits to individuals wearing masks, as well.

“A mask keeps your mouth and nose covered, which are two of the primary ways that infected droplets could enter your body,” Valyko said.

In a health care setting, the benefits may be even more pronounced, as medical masks meet special filtration requirements, which offer added protection.

Myth: Masks with exhalation valves are more comfortable and offer the same amount of protection.

Truth: Masks with exhalation valves are not nearly as safe and do not limit the spread of COVID-19.

Exhalation valves allow germs/droplets to be expelled into the air around you, putting others at risk.

“If a patient comes to Michigan Medicine for an appointment with an exhalation valve mask, we would ask them to cover the valve with a regular mask or change into a regular mask,” Valyko said. “There is very little protection offered by such masks.”

Myth: Wearing a mask causes a dangerous build-up of CO2 (carbon dioxide) if worn for long periods of time.

Truth: There is no science supporting this. Wearing a mask is a safe practice.

“Health care workers have been wearing masks for prolonged periods of time – many, many hours for longer surgeries and things like that without incident,” Valyko said.

That’s because CO2 particles are extremely small (unlike viral loads) and can pass through masks. That’s even the case for the higher protection masks like an N95.

“Studies on health care workers wearing tight-fitting N95 respirators have also not shown concerning increases in CO2 levels,” Valyko said.

Myth: I’m wearing a mask, so I don’t need to social distance.

Truth: Social distancing AND mask wearing is the most effective combination of limiting the spread of COVID-19.

As previously mentioned, wearing a mask limits droplet spread to about one foot. But that doesn’t eliminate it altogether. Additionally, all of the scientific data and recommendations assume masks are being worn properly by everyone.

“We often see people who are not wearing their mask correctly, such as covering their mouth but not their nose,” Valyko said. “People will also often pull down their mask to talk, which is never a good idea. So keeping yourself masked and practicing social distancing offers the most protection.”

If you do have to be closer than six feet, masks become even more critical. And vice versa, if you need to remove your mask to eat or drink, staying six feet apart is essential.

Listening to science

So why have such myths permeated society in the face of COVID-19. Valyko said there may be a scientific element to the uncertainty.

“As we learn more about the virus and how it is spread, recommendations have changed,” Valyko said. “That may have been the basis for distrust in what people are hearing from experts.”

In the end, it’s important that employees trust the science – and serve as role models for the rest of the community.

“Wear a mask, practice social distancing and wash your hands as often as possible,” Valyko said. “Those are key interventions that we can all perform in order to play our part during the pandemic.”

Valyko and Laraine Washer, M.D., associate professor of infectious diseases and medical director of Infection Prevention & Epidemiology, sat down to discuss even more about the most prevalent mask myths. Check out their conversation in the video at the top of the page!