For the first time in more than two years, people are coming face-to-face. And while it’s nice to see smiles again, the risk of COVID-19 infection is still very real.
If no one else is wearing a mask at the grocery store or on an airplane, is there any benefit to wearing one yourself?
Yes, says Emily Sickbert-Bennett, PhD, director of UNC Medical Center Infection Prevention.
“There is definitely value even in a single person wearing a mask,” she says. “It’s not nearly as safe as when both or all people are wearing a mask, but it can help.”
How Masks Work to Prevent the Spread of Viruses
Masks help reduce the spread of viruses in two ways: They keep the masked person from spreading infected droplets, and they catch droplets that others have released into the air.
“If you’re wearing a mask, it’s also less likely that you will inadvertently touch your nose or mouth if you have gotten virus on your hands,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says.
Now that many people are going maskless, it’s even more important to make sure that your mask fits well, she says.
“We know that different mask types fit your face in different ways,” she says. “The most protective mask is one that fits your face properly. N95 masks are designed to provide high filtration, and when they fit your face well, they offer very good protection.”
The more common blue-and-white surgical masks (also called medical or ear loop masks) also are made from very good filtration material, but they are designed to fit more loosely, she says.
“If you’re wearing that type, you should optimize the way you’re wearing it,” she says. Doing so can dramatically improve its effectiveness, UNC research has shown.
The “knot and tuck” method is one easy way to do this. In this video, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett demonstrates how putting knots in the ear loops close to the mask and tucking the material behind the knot can reduce any gaps in the fit.
Another option is double masking, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “Our research has shown that using the ear loop style of mask and layering a cloth mask on top that fits differently can help fill gaps and improve the effectiveness of masks overall.”
It’s OK to Wear a Mask, Even if Others Don’t
You’re not being unreasonable if you aren’t ready to face the world without a mask yet, Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. Most people won’t care that you’re wearing a mask, but you may face occasional peer pressure, sneers or rolling eyes from those who have gladly dropped their protection.
“There have been some settings where I was the only one, or one of the few, wearing a mask,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “But it’s more important for me to keep myself and my family safe than to worry about what other people think of me.”
Take Other Safety Precautions, Too
Another way to guard against infection is to make sure you are up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines and boosters. While it is possible to be fully vaccinated and still be infected with COVID-19, the vaccines offer strong protection against severe illness, hospitalization and death.
Keep your hands washed, too. Although research has shown that you’re less likely to pick up COVID-19 from a surface than from particles in the air, it’s still possible. And hand-washing can also help prevent illness from any other viruses that do live on surfaces.
“We’re seeing quite a rebound of other respiratory viruses now,” Dr. Sickbert-Bennett says. “You might not feel as bad from them, but it sure does put a crimp in your plans when you’re in bed sick.”
If you have symptoms of COVID-19 or any other illness you could spread to others, please stay home until you are well. If you need to see a doctor, find one near you.