Senior Health

8/3/2020 | By Annie Tobey

The coronavirus pandemic took the U.S. by surprise. Not since the 1918 flu pandemic has our nation been hit so hard by such a serious, widespread illness. Early in the pandemic, scientists and doctors were still working to understand this deadly new virus strain. After months of experience and research, the experts know: wearing a face mask can help contain the spread of the virus.

Why a Mask Helps

Evidence shows that the coronavirus spreads primarily through respiratory droplets from coughing, sneezing, talking, or simply breathing, says the FDA. These droplets can come from any infected person, even those who are asymptomatic. In other words, even if an infected person doesn’t show any signs of having COVID-19, they can still infect someone else. And that someone else could become deathly ill, or infect someone else. And yes, that someone else could die.

Masks help because they block those respiratory droplets. For this reason, the CDC recommends that people wear masks in public settings and when around people who don’t live in your household.

In addition, a new study commissioned by the World Health Organization found that masks can benefit the wearer, too, by mitigating the risk.

“I think there’s enough evidence to say that the best benefit is for people who have COVID-19 to protect them from giving COVID-19 to other people, but you’re still going to get a benefit from wearing a mask if you don’t have COVID-19,” said Peter Chin-Hong, infectious disease specialist at the University of California San Francisco.

Cloth masks and bandannas should be used in conjunction with other measures, such as isolation, social distancing, and handwashing.

Protecting Those Who Are Vulnerable

Some people are more vulnerable to the coronavirus than others. First, the risk for severe illness from COVID-19 increases with age. Also at increased risk are people of any age who have underlying medical conditions such as cancer, chronic kidney disease, COPD, obesity, serious heart conditions, and Type 2 diabetes mellitus. Other medical conditions that might lead to increased risk include asthma, high blood pressure, immune deficiencies, dementia, and Type 1 diabetes mellitus.

If you or someone you spend time with has any of these conditions, it’s especially important for you to avoid getting COVID-19.

At the same time, healthy people of all ages can contract COVID-19 and suffer severe consequences, including prolonged illness, death, and long-term effects.

When a Mask Is Not Advisable

The CDC affirms that cloth face coverings are not appropriate for everyone or in all situations. Face masks should not be worn by:

  • Children under the age of 2
  • Anyone who has trouble breathing, is unconscious, incapacitated, or otherwise unable to remove a mask without assistance
  • Some people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, mental health conditions or other sensory sensitivities
  • Those engaged in strenuous physical activities and activities in which the mask will become wet, such as running and swimming
  • People working where face coverings may increase the risk heat-related illness or safety hazards such as straps getting caught in machinery

In these cases, it’s important to make other accommodations to alleviate the risk of disease transmission.

Mask use poses challenges for hearing-impaired people who rely on lip-reading. However, those who communicate with them can use clear masks to overcome that problem.

Proper Face Mask Protocols

Health-care workers who come in direct contact with COVID-19 patients need to use professional respirators and medical-grade face coverings. For the rest of us, cloth masks are acceptable, including do-it-yourself masks and bandannas.

The face mask should cover from the bridge of your nose to under your chin. It should be comfortable and secure enough that you don’t need to adjust it while you’re using it, which increases risk from touching your face.

In other mask-wearing tips from Johns Hopkins Medicine:

  • Clean your hands before and after use.
  • Touch only the elastic bands.
  • Wash reusable masks after each use.
  • Don’t touch your mask while you’re wearing it.
  • Don’t remove it while you’re around other people.

Other Tips to Stay Safe

Although isolation is the best way to avoid catching the coronavirus, sometimes you simply must go out. If you do, maintain social distancing – at least six feet from others; wash your hands thoroughly or, if you can’t, use a hand sanitizer of at least 60% alcohol; clean and disinfect surfaces; avoid touching surfaces touched by other people; and avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

“The mask is not the be-all and end-all,” said Dr. Raed Dweik, chair of the respiratory institute at the Cleveland Clinic. “All of these things need to be put together.”

Annie Tobey

Annie Tobey has been a professional writer and editor for more than 30 years. As editor of BOOMER magazine, she explored a diversity of topics of particular interest to adult children of seniors. When she’s not writing, she can be found running the trails or enjoying a beer with friends.

Annie Tobey