What kind of masks should we be using during the COVID-19 crisis?

Locally, people are struggling to understand what kind of masks they should wear when venturing out of their homes and where they might obtain them. 

The bottom line (at this time) about what kind of mask we should be wearing outside of our own homes appears to be as follows:

1. Home-made cloth masks: these are preferable, primarily because, if worn by an unsuspecting carrier, they will decrease the amount of COVID-19 particles exhaled by their coughing, sneezing, laughing, singing, and even breathing. 

These home-made cloth masks may also provide some protection to the uninfected wearer primarily by making it more difficult to touch one's mouth or nose with unwashed hands.

Home-made cloth masks may also somewhat reduce the amount of water-droplet borne COVID-19 inhaled by an uninfected mask user, although it will not screen out the greater quantity of small COVID-19 viruses contained in a sneeze or cough by a carrier.

Home-made cloth masks are also washable and reusable, unlike the disposable surgical masks described next, below.

And, possibly most significantly, homemade masks are probably the easiest type of mask to obtain locally or to make oneself (see written and video resources at bottom of this post).

2. Simple disposable (flat, usually light blue) surgical masks: these have similar advantages and limits as home-made cloth masks, but, because they are manufactured and packaged under sanitary conditions, they are best reserved for healthcare and other front-line workers like police, fire, and EMTs.

If you happen to have any of these simple surgical masks still in their original packaging and would like to donate them, you can contact The Washington and Northern Orange Counties Regional Response Command Center, or WNOC-RRCC for information on how and where to do so.

3. N95 masks (aka N95 respirators) without one-way valves: these are intended for use in heath care settings because they are most effective masks for both the wearer and those who the wearer might unsuspectingly infect. So, they are best reserved for healthcare and other front-line workers like police, fire, and EMTs. 

If you happen to have any N95 masks without one-way valves in their original packaging, and would like to donate them, once again you can contact WNOC-RRCC for information on how and where to do so.

4. N95 masks with working one-way valves: these are a mixed bag; they are intended for work in which one may be in danger of inhaling large particles like sawdust, asbestos, hay, and soot. 

As such, on the one hand they do provide the wearer the same level of protection as the N95 masks without valves; however, the one-way valve sends exhalations out from the wearer in a concentrated stream, so that, if the wearer is infected (unsuspectingly or not), they are very likely to infect those to whom they are speaking and breathing uponIn contrast, cloth masks and simple surgical masks, absorb some water-borne exhalations and cause some of these heavier particles to simply fall to the ground near them

Thus, anyone who owns N95 masks with valves should NOT wear them in any situation where they will be talking closely to others.


To obtain homemade cloth masks, readers are encouraged to go to Front Porch Forum and search the archive by typing in “Masks” and or “COVID;” you will find the contact information for many local mask-makers. Or read articles on how to do it yourself, including: “How to Sew a Face Mask,” New York Times, 3/31/2020 and this YouTube video: Making a face mask without a sewing machine



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