Center for Environmental Reporting

By Sarah Mizes-Tan, Capital Public Radio

PIXNIO 46449 725x483The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is considering advising all Americans to wear masks in public to lessen the spread of the coronavirus, after new data showed that there was a high transmission rate of the virus from people showing no symptoms.

Earlier this week, Los Angeles mayor Eric Garcetti asked that all residents wear face coverings when outside to prevent transmission.

But how do you follow this information as a private citizen? And what types of face masks are effective? CapRadio Reporter Sarah Mizes-Tan tackled some listener questions about face coverings.

Should we be wearing masks every time we go out?

The answer is still up to debate, even for experts. Dr. Sonja Angell, director of the California Department of Public Health, said in a news briefing with Gov. Gavin Newsom on April 1 that wearing a face mask in public spaces was an option that Californians could consider but it should not be seen as a substitute for social distancing.

“There is some evidence that using face coverings may reduce asymptomatic infections, and also it might signal to others that you might need to keep some distance,” Angell said. “It does also work in decreasing the amount of infectious particles in the air, but it doesn’t decrease the need for physical distancing.”

For now, the state’s Department of Public Health is continuing to advise that social distancing of at least six feet is the most evidence-based way to keep from getting infected and infecting others.

Before announcing it might change its guidelines this week, the CDC had previously recommended that only medical professionals or those who are sick wear masks.

Are homemade masks OK for people isolating, with or without someone symptomatic in the household? For healthcare workers?

Cotton masks have been proven to be less effective than medical masks. According to studies, cotton masks let 97% of air particles through, while medical masks let only 44% through. However, experts have said a face covering of any sort can be helpful to remind yourself not to touch your face, to signal that you need distance, and to prevent particles you expel from getting into the air.

Essentially, they’re better than no face covering at all in a situation where you would need one, but medical masks are more effective.

(Note from Nor Cal Public Media: According to a federal official, CDC guidelines would stress that only health care providers should wear medical masks due to the nationwide shortage.) 

Where is testing in rural California? Where is the personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical practitioners?

California as a whole has a testing shortage right now, but things are slowly ramping up. Verily, a Google sister-company has set up testing at Cal Expo in Sacramento, and those wanting testing can fill out a form to see if they’re eligible.

The federal government has asked for more PPE for medical professionals and some companies are looking at making their own to help the supply. But there are no firm dates on when more PPE will arrive or when testing will be more widely available.

Can an N95 face mask be cleaned?

The California Department of Public Health did not have any information to give on this and there is no method currently for cleaning an N95 face mask at home. However, a recent study done by researchers at Duke University demonstrated that an N95 can be cleaned and reused up to 30 times using vaporized hydrogen peroxide with a special type of fogging machine. But the procedure isn’t one that can be replicated by an amateur, or without specialized medical equipment.

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