Expert Pitch
West Virginia University

Behind the mask with a WVU doctor: What to wear and whether face coverings should be mandated

15-May-2020 11:10 AM EDT, by West Virginia University

“To mask or to not mask” is no longer the primary question dominating the COVID-19 public discourse.

As states reopen amid the pandemic, the question now is, “Should face coverings be required in public?”

Mandates vary by state. In West Virginia, Gov. Jim Justice has strongly encouraged people to wear masks in public. In neighboring Maryland, Gov. Larry Hogan has ordered face coverings to be worn inside retail stores and on public transportation.

Dr. Robert Gerbo, director of Occupational Medicine at West Virginia University, addressed that debate and unmasked his expertise on when and how to cover up. Most recently, Gerbo has been involved in research exploring alternative masks for the N95.

So I'm going to put you on the spot. Do you think wearing face coverings in public should be mandatory?

The CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention) does not say it should be mandatory but does recommend it. At this point, I’d rather convince people that it’s a good idea to wear a face covering in public than mandate it by law. I highly recommend wearing a face covering in public places.

When is it appropriate to wear a face covering?

My recommendations mirror the CDC’s – you should use a face covering when going out into public or when the ability to physically distance yourself from others is going to be a challenge. For example, going to the grocery store or the pharmacy. But it doesn’t replace good handwashing and the use of hand sanitizer. This is in addition to remaining at home and away from others if you can.

What are the most effective types of face coverings to wear in public?

Typically, a cotton face mask with more than one layer. A tightly-woven, cotton fabric with two or more layers should work.

Some people talk about surgical masks and N95s, but with the supply chain and low stock, it’s recommended those be reserved for healthcare providers and first responders. Those folks are at the greatest risk. Social distancing can’t be maintained when examining and caring for a patient.

How effective are surgical masks at protecting those who wear them from contracting COVID-19?

What a lot of people don't realize is that the benefit of a surgical mask is not for the person wearing it. It’s for the patient, so that they are protected from the germs of the healthcare provider. A surgical mask does not provide adequate protection against aerosolized germs for the person wearing it.

Do masks breed bacteria you're breathing in and can it be harmful?

After a while, any face (or body) covering will harbor bacteria that is potentially, but not usually, harmful. That's a benefit of a cotton face covering; it is easily laundered, dried and reused. Disposable face coverings, like surgical masks, cannot withstand going through the washing machine and dryer.

Since you’re the head of Occupational Medicine (which centers on preventing and managing occupational injury and illness) at WVU, what emerging trends or patterns have you noticed regarding COVID-19 in work environments?

Reports of outbreaks in some meat and poultry processing facilities come to mind. On the job it's about maintaining physical distance between co-workers, engineering controls like good ventilation and clear plastic or plexiglass shields, wearing a face mask, good handwashing practices and the use of hand sanitizers, and frequently reminding workers about theses preventive measures. Most importantly, if you’re sick, stay at home. I also think it’s going to be a bit of time before we start gathering in large groups like at sports stadiums and concert halls.

Any other insights?

I wear my mask every time I go to the grocery store. I wear my mask when I walk the halls here at the Health Sciences Center, even though there currently aren't as many people. I practice what I preach.

I’ve had some very nice people provide me with homemade masks. Some depict superheroes. One has a John Deere tractor theme. I appreciate their thoughtfulness and how they added a special flair to the masks.

You know what else? Face coverings remind us not to touch our faces and are a visible reminder to folks to keep the distance and not get complacent. 

West Virginia University experts can provide commentary, insights and opinions on various news topics. Search for an expert by name, title, area of expertise, or college/school/department in the Experts Database at WVU Today.

-WVU-

js/05/15/20

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