To mask or not to mask

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RBC | Rio Blanco County Public Health adds caution to recommendations from the White House and the governor Friday — as per the Centers for Disease Control —encouraging citizens to wear cloth or homemade masks in public: “While we encourage anyone who desires to wear a cloth mask in public and support the governor’s statement, our main focus is to remind the people that this does not take the place of other preventative measures of protection such as social distancing and hand hygiene. We cannot emphasize this enough: cloth masks do not protect you entirely from getting COVID, so please continue to be vigilant,” Public Health Director Alice Harvey said via email.  

According to a social media post issued Friday from public health, “additional precautions” are necessary with the use of cloth masks: “While making and using homemade masks may provide you with some form of protection, it is important to understand that this is only if additional precautions are taken.”

Officials are concerned that wearing a homemade mask may contribute to a false sense of security and as such may cause people to stop taking the necessary social distancing and hygiene steps that are critical to slowing the spread of the virus. There are also concerns that telling people to wear masks will contribute to the ongoing shortages of medical-grade masks needed for healthcare workers. “Locally we are committed to ensuring we have enough masks for our frontline workforce and those who are ill,” Harvey said.

Since the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak the use of face masks by the general public has been a source of debate, with the public receiving mixed messages. A tweet from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) at the end of February said the CDC did not recommend the use of facemasks to prevent coronavirus contagion. At the time, people were panic-buying the N95 masks needed by healthcare workers to provide the highest level of protection. 

As the disease has spread, the tide is slowly turning. Several public health departments across Colorado, including Gunnison, San Miguel and El Paso counties, have since advocated the use of masks. Meanwhile, crafters locally and nationwide have put their sewing skills to use to create cloth masks for various agencies, including hospitals, clinics and nursing homes. While not medical-grade N95 masks, the homemade masks are being used in some healthcare settings as covers for N95 masks.

BOTTOM LINE: Wearing a cloth/homemade mask may provide some additional protection from coronavirus, but it’s not a guarantee and may actually increase the risk of infection if precautions related to wearing, removal and sterilization of the masks are not followed and if other guidelines (social distancing, hand hygiene, etc.) are ignored.

This is an ongoing story and will be updated as new information is received.