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The Science of Masks – How They Help Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and Why They Protect Lives

Dr. Scott Paparello discusses the science of masks and how they help prevent the spread of Covid-19 and why they protect lives.
The Science of Masks – How They Help Prevent the Spread of Covid-19 and Why They Protect Lives
Scott Paparello, DO
Scott Paparello, DO is an Infectious Disease Specialist at Emerson Hospital and Acton Medical Associates. 

Learn more about Scott Paparello, DO

Bill Klaproth: So, what is the science of masks? How do they help prevent the spread of COVID-19 and why do they protect lives? Let's clear the confusion and find out what Dr. Scott Paperello, infectious disease specialists at Emerson Hospital and Acton Medical Associates.

This is Health Works Here, the podcast from Emerson Hospital. I'm Bill Klaproth. Dr. Paperello thank you so much for your time. So what is the science or the evidence for the effectiveness of wearing a face covering?

Dr. Paperello: Well, thank you for having me. I think there's good lines of evidence that covering your mouth, we used to do with our hands, we do with our elbow when we're coughing or have any illness trying to protect other people. I think this has taken the next step to covering the mouth more formally with a cloth or other type of face mask to prevent a person from spreading an illness, they might have to another one. this is particularly important with COVID-19 as people may have it and not even know it as they may be asymptomatic, but still able to spread it by simple things as talking, singing, or certainly any coughing.

Host: And I think that's where the confusion comes in. So, correct me if I'm wrong, wearing a mask does protect the wearer, but more importantly, it sounds like it protects the people around you. If you are asymptomatic and you don't know you have it. So by wearing a mask, you're really protecting the people around you, is that right?

Dr. Paperello: Yes. I think that's where a lot of the confusion lies. The Asian countries often were masks during the flu season primarily to protect themselves, but what really ends up happening is they protect society and others from their illness. So when we adopted it in this country, the recommendation to wear a face mask, to prevent others from getting the infection, I think it's brought out some confusion. People saying, I don't need it because I don't have symptoms or I don't need it because I don't want to be protected from someone else's cough, et cetera. But the real goal is to prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading an infection they may not even know they have, and the mask are very effective in that situation and they do offer some protection from getting an infection as well

Host: Those are really good points. So if you care about the people around you wear a mask and it does offer protection to you, the wearer as well. So it's true then if both people have a mask on that dramatically cuts the risk of infection, is that correct?

Dr. Paperello: Yes, absolutely. If one person has the mask, there's still some risk, but in particular, if the one person who has the affection has the mask, and of course, as we said, you may not know that you're the person who has infection, but if that person is wearing the mask, that's very effective. If the other person who doesn't have the infection is wearing a mask as well, that markedly reduces any risk of transmission. There are some reports that, and modeling that if 80% of people in the country wore masks when appropriate, when can't socially distance, when they're not at home, that the curve would be flattened very quickly and this infection and this pandemic.

Host: And that seems very clear if we in this country are going to get control of this and flatten the curve for the whole country, all of us wearing masks is what needs to happen. So let's talk about different types of masks. We hear about N95 and surgical and cloth can you shed some light on the effectiveness of each of those?

Dr. Paperello: I think that's also where there's some confusion because you hear about these highly efficient masks, such as the N95 or the slightly less efficient surgical mask worn in hospital. Those are designed to protect the healthcare worker when they're dealing face to face with somebody who has an infectious process, such as COVID-19 or in the past TB or measles and the like, they are very effective in preventing a person getting the infection as long as they're worn right, you have to go through a pit testing process for the N95 to make sure it's effective. As far as the global recommendation to wear a mask when you can't socially distance in society, even a cloth face mask is effective in preventing you from spreading the infection. And there are videos that show coughs being expelled through a mask and the particulate matter being slowed down by even a simple cloth mass. So they're very effective. If you're out in society, you don't need N95, the risk isn't really from the air for you getting the virus directly from floating air if the goal is to prevent you from spreading it to someone else. And in that situation, the cloth masks are very efficacious.

Host: Okay. That's good to know. And then we've seen these masks and some N95 that have the little port, or I've seen them on other masks on the side. There's the little round valve. Those aren't good either because that doesn't filter your exhaling breath, right? The valve is there, the air that you're exhaling goes right out the valve. There's no protection, there's no covering. So am I correct in saying stay away from the masks that have the little port or valve?

Dr. Paperello: Yes, you're absolutely correct. Those are for healthcare workers or some industrial workers that need the N95 to protect them from small particulate matter while still allowing them to exhale. But in society, we're trying to prevent that exhaled air from being floated out without filtration through the mask. So yes, those are not ideal for the situation we're recommending them with protecting society.

Host: Good point there. And then what about when we're doing outdoor activities, which we all want to do and still can do like riding a bike or running in the woods. Do we have to wear a mask then?

Dr. Paperello: The guidelines in general, call for social distancing, staying at least six feet away from someone or wearing a mask there. I think in general, it's a good idea to do both. However, if you are truly socially distanced from people you're out in the woods, out in the street, which isn't a crowded street and you're out in the fresh air I think you don't have to wear a mask at that point. If you're riding your bike down the streets of New York City, passing people all the time, then that's a different story. But if you're truly out in a rural area or where there's very little pedestrian traffic, you don't have to wear a mask in that situation.

Host: Right. All right. Well, that's good to know. Well, Dr. Paperello, thank you so much. If you could wrap this up for us, because there has been so much confusion and you have definitely helped clear up the confusion on this podcast. Can you just explain why it's so important that we all need to be diligent in wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Dr. Paperello: I think as we've touched on earlier in the podcast, is that when you put the mask on in society, you are protecting others, you know, those right around you. And then those that might be in contact with those around you, because this spreads person to person, to person. Wearing a mask to prevent you from spreading the infection even when you don't have symptoms, knowing that you may have the infection and not be symptomatic. When you wear a mask in this situation, you are doing everyone a service and you are protecting yourself. There is data that you can protect yourself from inhaling the organism. So if everyone wore a mask, the, it would be highly effective in slowing this curve you would save many lives on, there are different models that, you know, you can save thousands of lives this way and it's a very simple thing to do, and you're doing it for the other person.

Host: And it is a simple thing to do. Wearing a mask will help save lives and will help get the spread of COVID-19 under control, which is what we all want. Dr. Paperello thank you so much for your time today. This has really been informative. Thanks again.

Dr. Paperello: Thank you for having me

Host: That's Dr. Scott Paperello and please visit for the latest information about the virus, resources about COVID-19 and to find a physician. And if you found this podcast helpful, please share it on your social channels and be sure to check out the full podcast library for topics of interest to you.

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