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Do face masks really reduce coronavirus spread?

Updated: Nov 14, 2022

Face masks are an effective method for containing the spread of the virus, used along with staying six feet apart from other people, plus more healthier habits (see our previous posts)

For the first time, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended that even seemingly healthy people wear masks over their mouths and noses when venturing out of their homes into places where it is difficult to maintain distance from other people. But there is still major debate over how much masks — particularly the homemade fabric masks that the CDC recommends for the public — can slow the spread of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.

The bottom line, experts say, is that masks might help keep people with COVID-19 from unknowingly passing along the virus. But the evidence for the efficacy of surgical or homemade masks is limited, and masks aren't the most important protection against the coronavirus.

"Putting a face mask on does not mean that you stop the other practices," said May Chu, a clinical professor in epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health on the Anschutz Medical Campus who was not involved in either new study. "It does not mean you get closer to people, it does not mean you don't have to wash your hands as often and you can touch your face. All of that still is in place, this is just an add-on."

Due to shortages, the CDC also does not recommend surgical masks for the general public. These masks don't seal against the face but do include non-woven polypropylene layers that are moisture resistant. In a surgical mask, about 70% of the outside air moves through the mask and about 30% travels around the sides, Chu told Live Science. For that reason, they don't offer as much protection as N95s.

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