Do you still need to wear a mask to guard against COVID-19? Can it protect you, or just those around you? These questions can be answered with something as simple and complex as one word: Situation.

As Pennsylvania’s mask mandate was lifted on Monday, Valley experts weighed on masking.

“Masking definitely helps other people because these viruses are spread through respiratory droplets, so they come out of your mouth or your nose and they aerosolize. They get into the air. So wearing a mask catches that on its way out of your mouth and nose,” said Dr. Brian Timms, primary care physician at Geisinger Sunbury.

“But it does also protect the wearer,” he continued. “The problem is, it’s not always as simple as wearing a mask or not wearing a mask. It’s very situational. What kind of environment are you in? Outdoors? In a relatively crowded area? In a crowded place like an airplane? The answer is long because it’s very situational.”

Masking: Mask against flu?

Fully vaccinated people still have a small chance of getting COVID-19, but that chance is even lower if you’re outdoors or in a group where everybody is masking, said Dr. Rutul Dalal, medical director, Infectious Diseases, UPMC in North Central Pa.

“One thing is for sure. If you are in a community environment, for example, using public transportation, the CDC still says you need to have a mask on,” Dalal said. “When you’re outdoors, it’s important to keep your distance if you can. Obviously if you’re indoors with fully vaccinated individuals, you don’t need to wear a mask.”

“As long as your mask has two layers, it will protect you as well as others around you,” said Diane Englehardt, infection prevention manager at Evangelical Community Hospital, in Lewisburg.

Masking: The COVID takeaway

Virus particles are pretty heavy, Dalal said. So even though experts say the virus can travel up to six feet, typically 80 to 90 percent of the virus particles will be in a three-foot vicinity.

“So with somebody getting the vaccine, you already have some protection, on top of wearing a mask in an area where there are people who are unmasked and probably unvaccinated,” he said. “That will still give you an added protection because it all depends upon the inoculum size, how much of the infected particle load is entering your body. So wearing a mask is definitely going to help protect you from other, unmasked individuals. It’s not a full-proof way of protecting yourself, but it definitely provides you with some protection, especially if you’ve gotten the vaccination as well.”

More situations to consider

In Pennsylvania, at least 60 percent of the population has received their first dose of the COVID vaccination, but there’s a lot of disparity among counties, Dalal said.

“For example, in our neck of the woods, in Lycoming County, only 38 percent have gotten the vaccine,” he said.

One medical article he read said that while there might not be “a forest fire” of COVID outbreaks, there’s always the chance of “small brush fires.”

“So I won’t be surprised if in certain communities that are not well vaccinated, we might see some local outbreaks coming in,” Dalala said. “So overall, yes, we can relax a bit. But then, looking at where you stay, which community you’re in and what the acceptance rate is there, that is also some food for thought to consider before completely relaxing.”

Masking: Get ready for variants

The only way to bring back full normalcy is by vaccinating individuals, Dalal said.

“The only foolproof method to protect yourself and your loved ones is vaccinations,” he said. “That has been proved over and over again even in past pandemics. Of course, social distancing, handwashing and masking help you mitigate the load of the virus, but if you want really good protection, vaccination is the only way moving forward.”

The chance of a vaccinated individual getting COVID is low, Timms said, but it is not zero. Situations will determine the need for a mask.

“Personally, I’m vaccinated. If I were to get on a plane right now, I would probably wear a mask,” he said. “How many of us who’ve traveled always end up sick? Whether it’s COVID or not, it’s because you’re in a confined space sharing a lot with your neighbors besides bad airplane food.”

If the mask fits …

Another masking consideration is how well it fits.

“Much of protecting yourself when you wear a mask is what mask are you wearing and how are you wearing it,” Timms said.

“The mask protects both of us, you and me. However, we have to wear it appropriately” Englehardt agreed.

Some points she noted:

  • The mask must fit snugly. The best way to do this is to have a metal band that can press firmly against the bridge of your nose so air doesn’t come out through the top or sides of the mask.
  • Cover both your nose and mouth. “I see so many people out there with their nose uncovered,” Englehardt said. “That’s not working.”
  • Do not wear a mask with an exhalation valve. “You’re exhaling your respiratory germs, if you have any germs,” Englehardt said.

Legitimate fears

Despite the fact that vaccinations are bringing more normalcy back to our lives, many people still fear the newness of the vaccine.

“I have this conversation with patients every day who say, ‘I’m not putting that chemical in my body. It’s too new,’” Timms said. “It’s a legitimate concern.”

So many products we handle regularly have been treated or created with chemicals, some of which haven’t even been studied. COVID-19 vaccines, on the other hand, Timms said, have undergone “rigorous, global scientific study and safety testing.”

Not only that, the vaccine has been deployed so widely—more than 2.7 billion worldwide—and it’s something that protects against a potentially severe, fatal illness.

“This mRNA type of vaccine has been studied for the past 10 years,” Englehardt said. “So it’s not really new. It’s just that finally we have the need for it. Scientists have been doing the research over the past 10 years.”

People can get ill from the vaccine, usually resulting in a day of fevers and aches — much better than spending days in the hospital and perhaps needing to be placed on a ventilator, Englehardt said.

“Getting the vaccine is the best thing to do for yourself and your fellow Americans,” she said. “I really believe that.”

Focusing on what matters

One of the big problems in dealing with the COVID pandemic was how the messaging was broken, Timms said.

“From the beginning, in so many ways, it created a lot of confusion,” he said. “It created a lot of mistrust.”

In a politically charged year, the pandemic became one more grappling point.

“For some reason, this became an issue about individual liberty versus our sense of community and willingness to help each other,” Timms said, “and things got off the rails a lot.”

Englehardt pointed out the almost-daily changing nature of COVID-19, which added to everyone’s confusion.

“Things do change, and because this is a novel virus, we’re learning as we go,” she said. “I think that’s important to understand, that we’re learning as we go with this thing.”

Masking and social distancing helped save lives, but staying away from loved ones for the rest of our lives is not practical, Timms said. We’re all tasked with weighing our options and making the best decisions we can as we move forward.

“But missed in all of this sometimes is that we just passed the 600,000 U.S. dead mark, so certainly when we can mitigate and save lives, I think that’s important,” he said. “Even though things seem to be calming down, we all have this responsibility to get vaccinated, to help people understand the truth about vaccination, and in circumstances where risks might be high, to maybe even continue wearing masks and distancing.”

Cindy O. Herman lives in Snyder County. Email comments to her at CindyOHerman@gmail.com

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