In the more than three months since Colorado has been dealing with the COVID-19 crisis, the most controversial recommendations from public-health officials have involved masks. The decision to wear or not wear facial coverings has been thoroughly politicized, with those who want to leave their nose and mouth open to the elements questioning the science behind the advice or arguing that mandating mask use infringes on their personal freedoms in ways that would horrify the nation's founders.
Debates over masks are also raging in Arizona, where our sibling paper, Phoenix New Times, recently cut through the clutter by putting its twenty most pressing questions on the subject to experts at Arizona State University. The answers were so interesting — particularly in light of spiking case counts in Arizona, which Governor Jared Polis has referenced with alarm — that we put the same inquiries (with a few tweaks) to one of the most important figures in Colorado's response to the novel coronavirus: Dr. Eric France, chief medical officer for the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment.
His answers, delivered via email, will give folks on both sides of the mask issue plenty to chew on — aside from the fabric that may or may not be stretched across their lips.
1. Do masks actually work to slow disease transmission?
Yes. COVID is spread through respiratory droplets. Wearing a mask can help prevent you from accidentally spreading droplets to others while you speak, cough, sneeze or breathe.
2. Could a lack of widespread mask-wearing cause a spike in cases?
Yes. Our model findings indicate that increased mask wearing would be beneficial for controlling the COVID-19 epidemic.
3. If I'm not infected but am wearing a mask while talking face-to-face with someone infected with COVID-19, do I get any benefit?
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Think of cloth mask-wearing as acting at the population level rather than the individual, one-on-one conversation level. If we all wear cloth masks, we may reduce the overall risk of infection for our community. The best protection is two people wearing a cloth mask while physically distancing.
4. Do people touch their faces less while wearing masks?
It is important to avoid touching your face. Wearing a mask may help you have less direct contact with your face. It can serve as a reminder to not touch your face, and if you accidentally slip up, you will be touching your mask instead of your face, which can provide some protection.
5. What if I really hate wearing a mask?
You’re not alone! Many people do not like wearing masks. We do it to keep ourselves, our neighbors and our families safe.
6. What if I feel wearing a mask is an infringement on my individual identity?
Research shows that people who have no symptoms can spread COVID-19. Wearing a non-medical face mask helps minimize the spread of the virus and is an important tool.
7. Am I sending a political signal just by wearing a mask?
No. You are showing that you care about the well-being of others.
8. Will I look weak/stupid/ugly in a mask?
No. You are showing that you care about the well-being of others and are committed to helping Colorado move forward and flatten the curve. Additionally, if you are worried about the way you may look in a mask, there are lots of creative ways to construct a mask that help show your personality while staying protected. The Colorado Mask Project has great ideas for creative DIY masks.
9. What should I do if someone who's not wearing a mask suddenly gets up in my (masked) grill?
If you feel uncomfortable in a situation, it’s important to take yourself out of it.
10. Should I ever admonish a store employee or fellow citizen, even gently, for not wearing a mask?
We are all in this together. It’s every Coloradan’s daily decisions that can help us continue to flatten the curve, and masks are an important part of our strategy. However, it is important to remember that there are reasons a person may choose not to wear a mask. People with certain illnesses or disabilities may not be able to wear a mask. We also recognize that for people of color, racial bias and stereotypes of criminality have created real fears about going out in public with a mask or face covering.
11. Is it okay to leave my nose showing while wearing a mask?
The mask blocks droplets. Droplets come out of your nose, so it is important to cover your nose and mouth while wearing a mask in order for the mask to be as effective as possible. Instructions on how to put on, wear, and take off a mask properly can be found here.
12. Should outdoor joggers and cyclists be wearing masks, too?
If you are exercising in a crowded area and are able to wear a mask comfortably while recreating, we encourage you to wear a face-covering. If you are not able to exercise comfortably while wearing a face-covering, choosing an area with less people is preferable.
13. Should I leave my mask on if eating indoors at a restaurant when not actively eating/drinking?
Customers don’t need to wear face coverings when eating or drinking, but are encouraged to wear a mask at restaurants when they aren’t actively eating or drinking. For example, customers should wear masks or face coverings on their way to be seated, when walking past other tables, and on their way to the restroom.
14. Will leaving my mask in the sun in my car in Denver this summer kill any germs on it?
We recommend washing and drying your cloth masks in a washing machine and dryer to properly clean your mask.
15. Should I open my door to people wearing masks?
Because Coloradans are encouraged to wear masks in public, delivery drivers, people selling goods and services door-to-door, census workers and campaign volunteers should be wearing masks. Additionally, you can minimize your contact with others by selecting no-touch options for delivery services and encouraging those that visit your front porch to physically distance themselves if you decide to engage in a conversation.
16. Does wearing sunglasses or eyeglasses with the mask provide extra benefit?
Wearing a mask will help you prevent spreading droplets to another person and another person’s droplets landing on you. Your glasses can provide an extra barrier for your eyes and may help you avoid touching your eyes.
17. What are the best types of masks to wear for protection, if I can't get N95s?
Any cloth face covering will work. You could wear a bandanna, a scarf or make your own. Here are some things to think about when choosing your mask. Masks should:
• Be clean and in good repair.
• Fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.
• Be secure.
• Include multiple layers of fabric.
• Allow for breathing without restriction.
• Be able to be laundered and machine dried.
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19. I found some N95s in my shed. Is it okay to wear them out, or am I hoarding supplies that hospitals need? Should I donate them to a hospital?
You should only wear masks that are clean. If the masks are unopened and clean, you can donate them at HelpColorado.org.
20. If N95s are the best and might prevent community spread more effectively, why can't average consumers find them?
N95s are most effective when they are fitted properly. For the general public, a cloth mask or facial covering is enough to help reduce community spread. Additionally, the supply chain is stressed right now, as the entire globe tries to source personal protective equipment for hospital staff, first responders, and other front-line workers. This is another reason that N95s are not as readily available to the general consumer.