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Since the coronavirus pandemic began, there have been mixed messages about the use of cloth masks as an effective protection against COVID-19. Sadly, the topic has even become a politicized “hot button” in recent months, with emotions running high on both sides of the question. But when it comes to protecting our most vulnerable, especially, we need to look at the question through the eyes of science, rather than public opinion or politics. The longer we live with and study this disease, the more scientists have begun to understand about how it spreads. With that in mind, let’s explore the question of face masks, particularly when it comes to seniors. Are they, indeed, an effective safeguard against exposure to COVID-19?

The short answer is yes—but to understand why and how, we need to know more about how the virus spreads, so we have some context.

How Coronavirus Spreads

According to the CDC, the primary method of transmission of coronavirus is person-to-person through “droplets” that come from the mouth or nose when a person breathes, sneezes, coughs, talks, etc. Some viral particles may also be airborne through smaller, “aerosolized” droplets that can hang in the air for hours. Most people are infected with COVID-19 by breathing in these droplets after being in relatively close contact with an infected person (generally within 6 feet, but sometimes even farther away in closed-in spaces). The masks are believed to limit or restrict the release of these droplets into the air, thus reducing the risk of exposure.

“Viral Load”

Another factor to consider with COVID is “viral load”—how many particles of the virus a person must be exposed to before they get infected. While we still don’t know exactly how much of the virus is required to make people sick, most researchers believe by looking at transmission patterns that viral load does play a role in whether a person becomes infected, and possibly even how severe their symptoms are. Generally speaking, the less of the virus you take in, the better your chances of avoiding illness or having milder symptoms. In this regard, the duration of exposure is also a factor. If you’re in an enclosed space with an infected person, the viral load increases the longer you’re in the room with them—even if you’re more than six feet apart. Some refer to the risk factor as viral load over time. This is why the risk of exposure is less outdoors than indoors.

Masks: Preventing the Spread versus Reducing Exposure

How does this information tie into the effectiveness of face masks? While a face mask is not “airtight” and can’t theoretically stop the virus from coming through, it does effectively reduce the number of droplets that can pass through in either direction. If an infected person wears a mask, it reduces the amount of virus that escapes into the air; if a healthy person wears one, it can potentially limit the viral load if that person comes into contact with a sick person, especially if they are in an enclosed space together.

Here’s the irony of it all: Face masks are most effective when everyone wears them. Studies have indicated infection rates plummet when 80 percent or more of the people in a group practice the use of masks. This is because masks are actually more effective at keeping sick people from making other people sick than they are at reducing your exposure to the disease from others.

So, understanding all this…will face masks really protect your elderly loved one from COVID? In short, yes. The protection isn’t 100 percent, but when worn correctly over the nose and mouth, it will reduce the risk of illness from COVID. That said, the mask will be much more effective for your loved one if the people around them also wear masks.

That’s how mask-wearing works.