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None of us wanted to be here again. Like many others, when the vaccines came into play a year ago, I thought that we would be able to lick the virus and that precautions such as masking and social distancing would be a thing of legend.

What we failed to take into account was that not everyone would follow the facts and get vaccinated. But the virus was smarter than all of us and continues to adapt, and even those of us who are vaccinated, must once again don protective gear to safeguard those who don’t have a choice, especially young children for whom vaccines are not yet available, as well as those who choose not to get vaccinated. So, let’s review the basics.

Masks are a little like seat belts – even when mandated, they can only protect you if you use them correctly and consistently. Unlike seat belts, they can protect others from the spread of the virus, especially the highly contagious Delta variant.

We all know that the virus is spread by respiratory droplets or small particles (aerosols) when one sneezes, coughs, talks, breathes or sings. Aerosols are small and very light, like a fine spray. Droplets are heavier and fall to the ground readily; aerosolized viral particles disperse more and remain in the air longer, which is why they are dangerous to unmasked other people, especially indoors. Masks act as a barrier to prevent exposure to such aerosols and to keep you from spreading them.

In general, we have not had to wear masks in outdoor settings. But now with high transmission of the virus (even by the vaccinated) due to the Delta variant, a mask in crowded outdoor settings and for activities with close contact with others who may not be vaccinated is recommended. And we must certainly mask up indoors when in contact with others.

Here are some basics for the use of masks:

– Masks should have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric. The type of fabric is not as important as the weave. Use the light test to check the weave: If you can easily see the outline of the individual fibers when you hold up the mask to the light, it's not likely to be effective. One of the best ideas I’ve heard for the general public is to wear two masks (disposable mask underneath and cloth mask on top).

– Fit is critical. Your masks should completely cover your nose and mouth. It should be adjusted to fit snugly against the side of your face, without any gaps. And the mask should have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask. Be sure to knot and tuck ear loops of a 3-ply mask where they join the edge of the mask. Fold and tuck the unneeded material under the edges.

– Gaiters have grown in popularity, but they should still have two layers or be folded to make two layers. Face shields have not been proven to be effective unless masking is worn underneath them.

– The most effective mask – N95s – are made from fibers woven with an electrical charge that can trap errant particles – like a sock that sticks to your pants in the dryer. Such masks have been reserved for front line healthcare workers, due in part to supply but also due to the training needed to fit and wear them properly. Many are now advocating the use of these masks by everyone as further mitigation for the pandemic.

– Children over 2 years of age should wear a mask that is made for children.

– Facial hair makes mask fitting difficult. The best advice is to shave beards or trim close to the face.

Some people contend that wearing a mask raises the carbon dioxide (CO2) level in the air you breathe. This belief is unfounded. CO2 molecules are small enough to easily pass through a cloth or surgical mask, whereas respiratory droplets that carry the virus are much larger and cannot pass as easily through a properly designed and properly worn mask. (Source, CDC.org)

While in many places, masks are voluntary, masks are still required on planes, buses (including school buses), trains and other forms of public transportation.

We know that face masks alone cannot stop the pandemic. but they are a crucial part of protecting ourselves and others from infection. The less the virus spreads, the less chance it has to mutate and produce variants like Delta. If you can couple mask-wearing with other precautions, like social distancing in high-risk situations, and getting vaccinated we can help our community to stay open and safe.

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Karla Sexton, compliance officer at River Valley Health and Dental in Williamsport. 


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