Face Masks 101: CDC and OSU Global Health Directors Weigh In

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Oregon Health Authority now recommend wearing masks in public, especially in instances where it may be difficult to maintain adequate physical distancing, such as in grocery stores or pharmacies. 

While many health care workers are required to wear medical masks and even facial shields and gowns, the general public is recommended to find or make cloth masks to increase safety when meeting essential needs. Here’s what experts have to say, as well as some local resources for finding or making your own mask. 

Medical Masks 

“We need to preserve supplies of medical masks for our health care workers so they can stay safe as they work to keep all of us healthy,” said Paul Cieslak, MD and Medical Director for Communicable Diseases at the Oregon Heath Authority Public Health Division. “For the general public, homemade fabric masks, especially if well-made and well-fitting, may provide some benefit.” 

As widely reported, commercially-made medical masks are in short supply as hospitals and healthcare workers compete to purchase them. This is why community volunteers like the Corvallis Sewing Brigade started making masks for healthcare workers to use as back-up. 

Cieslak explained that “all [OHA] staff must be fit tested for N95 masks before they can be used effectively for infection prevention, as it’s not one size fits all. In settings where face masks are not available, the CDC does allow for health care professionals to use other masks, including homemade masks, for the care of patients with COVID-19 as a last resort.”  

Professor Chunhuei Chi has studied health policy throughout the world in his role as Director for the Center for Global Health at Oregon State University. Over the past couple of months, he has become a go-to source for news outlets regarding policies and practices regarding mask-wearing. 

“Homemade masks can be very helpful for health professionals who are working in the frontline of this pandemic. However, homemade masks do not provide adequate protection for clinicians who are treating either confirmed or highly suspected COVID-19 patients,” Chi said. “In such cases, even N95 is not adequate. They will need a full facial shield to protect them. Such a facial shield can be put in front of homemade masks for those who are doing screening or triage if they don’t have access to N95.” 

“In light of masks shortage, one alternative that has been widely used in large hospitals is reuse [of masks]. Before reuse, however, one needs to sterilize [the mask] with UV that is readily available in most hospitals and even clinics,” Chi continued. 

“Samaritan’s strategy is to use standard PPE first as it offers the best protection for our vital health care professionals,” said Ian Rollins, Benton County Marketing and Communications Coordinator for Samaritan Health Services. “Other masks will be used if standard PPE supplies are depleted or would potentially be used in care settings not requiring as stringent PPE use, to free up available supplies in COVID-19 treatment areas.” 

Homemade Masks  

“Wearing a fabric mask can help prevent the spread of infection to others… particularly if the person is coughing… sneezes and, to a lesser degree, speaks.” Cieslak explained.  

However, Cieslak warned that “the data does not tell us how much protection homemade cloth masks provide to the person wearing [the] mask. For this reason, homemade and fabric masks should not be considered reliable protection.” 

Chi acknowledged that homemade masks may be especially beneficial to people working in essential roles like delivery drivers and grocery workers.  

The LA Times recently interviewed Chi about the benefits of members of the public wearing masks during a COVID-19 outbreak. He observed a difference in the growth curve between regions where mask-wearing was already more common, like in China and other Asian nations, compared to where it isn’t, such as in the U.S. and most of Europe.  

“They got their first cases much earlier than Europe and the U.S., but if you look at the total number of cases, they have been growing very slowly,” Chi said. “Wearing masks is one way that has allowed them to slow the number of cases.” 

While the masks are not generally fine enough to filter out all the virus particles, they still seem to make a difference. Chi explained one reason could be the mask blocks fluid droplets from entering the nose or mouth. This is why it can be beneficial when practiced in addition to following other hygiene and social distancing guidance. 

CDC Mask Guidelines 

The CDC offers tips on mask-wearing. They recommend wearing a mask that fits comfortably yet securely against the face. Multiple layers of fabric are ideal, but choose a fabric that allows you to breathe without restrictions and is easy to wash and dry. 

Members of the Corvallis Sewing Brigade also remind us to wash cloth masks before wearing them, and to remember to always wash hands before putting a mask on, taking it off, and after removing it, just in case there are droplets on the outside of the mask.  

“Above all, we continue to stress that the reliable tool we have right now to prevent the spread of COVID-19 is strict social distancing – as outlined in Governor Brown’s ‘Stay Home, Save Lives’ orders,” remarked Cieslak.  

Get or Make a Cloth Mask 

The Corvallis Sewing Brigade is accepting requests for hand-made masks. They prioritize health care workers and those providing essential services, but they are also accepting requests from others. Submit any requests through the Benton County Recovers website. The Corvallis Sewing Brigade is not only making masks for healthcare workers, but is now endeavoring to create shields and gowns. Read our prior coverage here.  

Or, try this No Sew Method to convert a bandana into a mask, published by the CDC. 

Samaritan Health Services also posted this tutorial from EasyToSew on how to make a face mask with a filter pocket.   

By Samantha Sied