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Experts: Homemade masks advisable in some situations to guard against COVID-19

From Nassau County to Suffolk County, Long Islanders are wearing a variety of masks to limit exposure for themselves and others during the coronavirus outbreak.  Credit: Newsday / Staff

Federal and local officials began encouraging people this week to wear masks in public, but with dwindling supply of medical masks and face masks scarce in stores, can homemade masks really be a viable option?

Yes, infectious disease experts say, primarily for healthy individuals and those who are not caring for infected patients for continuous hours, such as front-line health care workers.

Those who have the coronavirus and are at home with others who may or may not have the virus, should also wear a homemade mask if no other option is available to them, they said.

The Center for Disease Control on Friday recommended people wear nonmedical masks, a shift from previous advice that only those who are sick or with underlying respiratory illnesses should use face coverings.

“The CDC is recommending that Americans wear a basic cloth or fabric mask. They can be either purchased online or simply made at home, probably material that you’d have at home,” said President Donald Trump at a news briefing, adding he would not wear one himself.

Earlier in the week, Mayor Bill de Blasio also urged people in New York City to start using face coverings.

Some infectious disease experts insist, though, that people don't need to wear any masks if they are outside and maintaining social distance of at least six feet or at home with their families.

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"In general, if you’re not near other people, there’s no point in wearing a mask," said Aaron Glatt, chairman of the Department of Medicine at Mount Sinai South Nassau hospital. "Even health care workers, if they’re not near patients, don’t need to be wearing masks."

Glatt said he would still recommend those with the virus to wear something covering their nose and mouth, even a homemade mask.

“Any mask for a person who is potentially shedding virus is going to be somewhat helpful. Better than no mask at all,” said Glatt, who also serves as Mount Sinai South Nassau chief of infectious diseases and is the hospital’s epidemiologist.

But front-line health care workers taking care of patients with the virus should not use cloth masks as a replacement for the higher-grade medical masks, such as N95 respirator masks, which can do a better job of protecting them.

“For a medical person, to wear a cloth mask on a regular basis might actually be dangerous," Glatt said. 

Cloth masks can get wet during use, Glatt said, which could “be a cause of infection and not a prevention of infections” for a health care worker who wears such a mask for several hours.

Research suggests that some infections are being spread by people who don’t show symptoms but are carrying the virus, which prompted the new recommendations from the federal government.

Social distancing, though, remains a critical factor in preventing the rapid spread of the virus, Glatt said.

"Everybody has to stay away from everybody else. Do the maximum when it comes to keeping a distance. No interactions with other people outside those in your family," Glatt said. "Call others up on the phone, video chat, but no direct contact."

The virus is spread through droplets from coughing or sneezing, which means it lingers in the surrounding area of the infected person, but not farther than that, Glatt said. "There’s controversy as to how far it goes, so standing a good distance between somebody else is a very reasonable thing to do."

When and where should you wear a mask?

If you are in a car by yourself, exercising outside at a six-foot distance from others, or out for a walk with a family member, a mask is not necessary, said Catherine Shannon, director of infection protection at Catholic Health Services

Even to pick up a food delivery at the front door, "it probably isn't necessary, but it doesn't hurt," Glatt said.

If you know you will be close to others, it's a good idea to wear a mask, they said.

“Given what we presume to be the high prevalence of virus circulation in the community at the moment, it is prudent to wear a mask when you anticipate you’re going to be coming within six feet of other people,” said Dr. Bruce Polsky, chairman of medicine at NYU Winthrop Hospital and an infectious disease specialist.

Best practices for your DIY mask?

There isn't enough research to determine what is the best material to use for a homemade mask, Glatt said.

"For a person who is not wearing it all the time, they’re just wearing it for a short period of time when they’re going out and in contact with other people, it probably doesn’t make a difference what material," Glatt said.

A mix of both cotton and polyester could be good for homemade masks, given most household items have those materials, Shannon said. 

Keep in mind that no matter what type of mask, don't fidget with it while it’s on, keep hands away from the face and remove the mask carefully so as not to contaminate yourself, Shannon said.

For homemade masks, Shannon offered this advice to reuse them:

“The inside of the mask could be damp, and if you have coughed or sneezed while wearing it, you have to be careful how you remove it. Hold it by the straps and put in the hamper or washer. Wash it in detergent and warm to hot water. Dry it in your dryer. After removal, wash your hands for 20 seconds or use an alcohol-based hand rub on all hand surfaces until dry. Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth."

With AP, David Olson and Tom Brune

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