Wearing and Caring for Masks
May 19, 2021
May 19, 2021
What is Southwestern’s policy on face masks and coverings?
All Southwestern University employees, students, and visitors must cover their faces with a mask or cloth face covering at all times when they are indoors unless they are alone in a private office, private residence hall room, or other private space. The face covering (mask) must fully cover your nose and mouth and have at least two layers of fabric to reduce risk of transmission to others around you. The mask must be properly fitted and secured in place. Southwestern University has provided two high-quality fabric masks to all employees and students. You may also use a homemade fabric mask that meets the covering requirements listed above. If you choose to use a disposable paper mask, they are not designed to be reused on a daily basis and should be disposed of daily. Loose fitting, loose knit face coverings, single layer fabrics such as traditional bandanas and neck Gaiter coverings are not permitted due to inadequate filtration. Face masks with exhalation valves are not permitted.
When and where must I wear my mask?
Everyone will be required to wear masks at all times when indoors on campus, except when alone in a residence-hall room or apartment, in a one-person office, or other private space.
What if I forget my mask, don’t have one, or don’t want to wear one?
To safeguard the health of others, you will be asked to leave any indoor public space on campus if you are not wearing a mask. Southwestern is also providing every student, faculty member, and staff member two high-quality nonmedical-grade masks (see “Where can I find a dependable mask?” below).
What if I have an underlying medical condition, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), that makes wearing a mask uncomfortable?
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the World Health Organization (WHO), the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America, and the American Lung Association, if you have been diagnosed with an underlying medical condition, you should self-isolate as much as possible during the pandemic for your own health, such as learning remotely, asking friends or family to run errands, and using delivery services. When it is absolutely necessary for you to be in public spaces, such as classrooms or the dining hall, you must still wear a mask. More comfortable but still effective face coverings are available, such as those made from 100% cotton or moisture-wicking fabric. Avoid going out when the weather is hot and humid, when the pollen count is high, or when other triggers are present; for people with breathing difficulties, wearing a mask in these conditions can exacerbate your discomfort or even trigger breathing distress.
What if I have a beard?
Make sure your mask fits as snugly to your face as possible to prevent respiratory droplets from escaping. If you’re curious about the CDC’s recommendations for facial hairstyles that are best suited for healthcare workers to assure that their wear respirators provide a protective fit, not necessarily the cloth masks most of us will be wearing (see “What kind of mask should I wear?” below), you can find that here.
Why are we required to wear masks?
When we’re not physically isolated, wearing a properly fitting face mask is crucial to slowing the transmission of COVID-19. Both preliminary and peer-reviewed studies (which you can read about in articles published in the most rigorous and respected medical and scientific journals, such as the Lancet, Nature Medicine, BMJ Global Health, Cell, and Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical, and Engineering Sciences, as well as in preprint articles that have yet to be peer reviewed, such as this one or this) have shown that the transmission of coronaviruses is significantly reduced with the use of face masks in combination with physical distancing; some experts have indicated that wearing face coverings or masks can reduce the risk by as much as five times. In addition, infection and mortality rates have been far lower than projected in regions and countries where individuals were required or chose to wear masks (e.g., Hong Kong and Taiwan)—both lower than originally projected for those areas and lower than in regions and countries where or while at least 80% of the population were not wearing face coverings (e.g., the U.S., Brazil, and Russia). This is why the CDC as well as most local public-health agencies recommend the use of cloth face masks and why many city, county, and state ordinances require the use of face coverings.
Without physical distancing and wearing face masks, the risk of infecting other people is very high. This can lead to a local outbreak of COVID-19 across campus and to our local community.
Proper face coverings protect others from the respiratory droplets that are produced—and can be projected up to 27 feet—when we sneeze, cough, or even talk. These miniscule droplets can carry severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2), the virus that causes COVID-19, as well as other infectious pathogens. If we already have COVID-19 (even if we are not aware of it because we are not showing symptoms), containing those droplets with a face mask reduces the likelihood of spreading the virus to others.
If we are healthy, wearing a mask can help protect us by decreasing how often we accidentally touch our own noses and mouths with unwashed hands, which can be another mode of transmission for coronaviruses. A mask may help protect us from the larger respiratory droplets exhaled by other people, and they can help remind us not to touch our own faces, which can lower our risk of infection, but most evidence supports that the wearing of masks safeguards those around us.
In other words, your masks helps protect me while my mask helps protect you.
Ultimately, wearing proper face coverings, in addition to staying physically distanced or isolated and washing our hands frequently, will help us curb the pandemic faster so we can fully reopen campus sooner.
But the WHO and the CDC did not originally recommend wearing masks. Why are we required to wear them now?
In the face of a novel disease, scientific research takes time to accumulate and be verified. In the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic, public-health officials did not recommend face masks because they had not yet ascertained that individuals who are infected can spread SARS-CoV-2 before they exhibit COVID-19 symptoms or even if they never experience symptoms; more recent research (i.e., published in June and July 2020), however, has revealed that a large percentage of transmissions—and perhaps more than half—have occurred from individuals who were presymptomatic or asymptomatic. Public-health officials were also attempting to conserve the supply of certain personal protective equipment (PPE) because of the shortage that was endangering the health and lives of frontline healthcare workers. However, there is now evidence that the virus is contagious regardless of whether infected individuals show symptoms, so wearing nonmedical-grade masks is imperative in slowing the disease’s spread.
What kind of mask should I wear?
Face coverings need to be made with a minimum of two layers of fabric; more layers usually translates to better filtration ability. A high-quality, high-density fabric (i.e., a minimum 180 threads per inch), such as quilting cotton, is preferred.
Check the fabric filtration level by holding the mask against a very bright light and looking for light transmitting through the fabric to compare. The darker, the better: if you can clearly see light spots shining through, the fabric will likely not prevent the transmission of tiny respiratory droplets, so you’ll need to add an additional filter layer.
Masks with two ties (head and neck) must be secured on top and bottom so that there are no gaps for respiratory droplets to escape the face covering.
Masks with ear loops are easy to use but sometimes do not fit as snugly or can irritate the wearer’s ears; extenders can help ease ear pain and offer a better fit.
Look for a mask with a reinforced nose piece (e.g., a metal strip) if possible so you can mold the mask to attain a better fit. It will also help keep the mask on your face when talking.
Check your masks for breathability; wear each mask (if of different types or quality) for 10 minutes to be sure your breathing is neither labored nor very difficult through the fabric. This scenario is unusual for cotton fabric masks. Granted, wearing a mask will feel warm or even hot because of exhaled breath, but this is to be expected. You can become accustomed with practice. This is a very small sacrifice for the enormous benefits of protecting the health of our campus community members.
What are the different types of masks available?
Disposable N-95 filtering facepiece respirators are often white with yellow elastic head straps. They qualify as personal protective equipment (PPE) and therefore should be reserved for healthcare workers and medical first responders unless otherwise directed by your healthcare provider. Note also that some N-95 masks contain an exhalation valve that releases unfiltered air when the wearer breathes out, so if the wearer is carrying SARS-CoV-2, they can still can infect others. Therefore, masks with an exhalation valve are not allowed at Southwestern.
Disposable surgical (aka medical) masks are often blue with white ear loops, have pleats, include multiple layers of filtering cloth, and can be fairly loose fitting. These are best reserved for healthcare workers when N-95 respirators are not available, those who have contracted COVID-19 and are isolated, and the caretakers of those who have or are suspected of having COVID-19. They are also recommended for individuals over 60 years of age and those with underlying medical conditions when in a public place where physical distancing is not possible.
Reusable cloth (nonmedical) masks and face coverings come in many shapes, sizes, fabrics, and styles. Homemade or commercial cloth face masks should be made with a minimum of two layers of tightly woven fabric (quilters cotton has shown excellent results). Southwestern University conducted comprehensive in-house testing to select a commercial vendor who developed a very high quality multi-layered face covering with good filtration and fit factors. Whichever mask you choose, it must fit snugly to your face to avoid respiratory secretions escaping or viral particles from entering.
Neck gaiters, which are fabric tubes that slide over one’s head, are a popular kind of athletic wear but are highly porous for easy breathing. Most neck gaiters are made of stretchy polyester single layered fabric and do not provide good filtration for small particles/aerosols. Multiple neck gaiters were tested in-house and did not pass our face covering efficacy tests. Neck gaiters are not permitted on campus.
Pitta masks are made from polyurethane foam and are highly porous for easy breathing—which means they provide zero protection from the spread of viruses, including coronaviruses such as SARS-CoV-2. Avoid these.
Paper masks do not contain the required layers or filtration to prevent respiratory particles from escaping. Avoid these.
What are the limitations of cloth face masks and coverings?
In addition to the limitations of specific types of masks mentioned above, wearing a cloth face mask does not mean it is safe to have close conversations or interactions with other people. We all still need to physically distance at least six feet apart while wearing a mask.
In addition, masks must be worn, adjusted, used, stored, and cleaned properly to be an effective tool to reduce the risk of spreading pathogens. Touching the exterior of the mask, removing it without washing your hands, and then touching your face can raise your risk of infection.
Where can I find a dependable mask?
Southwestern will be providing every student, faculty member, and staff member with two nonmedical-grade branded masks. Each cloth face covering includes four layers of cotton with antibacterial properties (this is to reduce odors only; COVID-19 is caused by a virus, not bacteria).
These masks are not medical devices. They are not intended to be personal protective equipment and should not be used by healthcare professionals or used in a healthcare/clinical environment or setting. They are not intended to prevent or protect from any form of illness or disease (or otherwise).
If you lose your SU-provided masks or are looking to acquire additional branded face coverings, replacements or extras are available. Make a gift of $10 to the Student Emergency Fund through the link below and receive one SU-branded mask. The tax-deductible amount of your contribution is limited to the amount of your donation which exceeds the fair market value of the mask(s) received in exchange. The value of each mask is estimated to be $5. https://southwestern.formstack.com/forms/sufacemask
How should I wear a mask?
- Wash your hands before putting on a clean mask while still in your room or home.
- Holding the ear loops or ties and not the front of the mask, remove the mask from its clean container (e.g., a resealable plastic bag), and cover your nose (up to just beneath the bridge), mouth, and chin.
- Fit it snugly against your cheeks, eliminating any gaps or openings, and make sure it covers both your nose and mouth, but make sure you can still breathe.
- Avoid touching or moving the mask to avoid transferring microbes from the mask to your hands or from your hands to your face. If you accidentally touch your mask while wearing it, wash your hands as soon as possible.
- Do not remove your mask until you are inside your home.
- Wash your hands before removing your mask.
- Take off the mask by grasping the ear loops or ties—again, not the front of the mask—and pulling it away from your face.
- Store the mask in a clean, resealable plastic bag if it is neither dirty nor wet and you plan to reuse it.
- Wash your hands again.
- Alternate multiple face masks to be sure each is clean and fully dry before use.
- Combine wearing your mask with everyday health habits: maintain physical distancing, avoid contact with those who are sick or suspected of having COVID-19, wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds each time, and use hand sanitizer if soap and water are unavailable.
For the SU branded masks, pinch the wire around the bridge of your nose tightly to avoid gaps and prevent the mask from slipping down your face. Then, adjust the two ball clamps to assure a custom fit.
What if my mask gets wet?
Change it! Wet masks enable germs to flow through, make it more difficult to breathe, and can even promote the growth of microorganisms.
What if my mask gets dirty?
Wash it! Preferably, you should wash your mask after each use or at least once a day, and you should rotate masks each day (e.g., wear mask A on Monday, mask B on Tuesday, mask C on Wednesday, and mask A—after it’s been laundered and dried—on Thursday).
How do I wash my mask?
You can always wash your mask with your regular laundry; just use regular detergent and the warmest water that’s appropriate for the cloth used in your face covering. By hand, you can wash your mask by agitating the fabric in soap and hot water (at least 60°C or 140°F). You can also make a miniature washing machine by filling a clean covered plastic container with hot water and soap, dropping in your mask, sealing the container, and shaking vigorously.
However you choose to wash your mask, be sure to rinse thoroughly with cool or room-temperature water.
And remember, you must completely dry your fabric mask before wearing it! You can do this in the dryer, by hanging the mask by the loops, or by laying the face covering flat on a sanitized surface to air dry. Air drying your mask in direct sunlight is even more effective.
When it’s dry, store your mask in a clean, dry paper or plastic bag to keep it sanitary.
Can I wear a plastic face shield instead of a cloth mask?
Plastic face shields may help reduce the spread of medium to large respiratory droplets from the wearer to those near them and from other people to the wearer. When worn in addition to face coverings, face shields very likely offer a higher level of reduction of risk in certain higher-risk activities because they help protect the eyes and face and offer a physical barrier, which is why we often see them in hospitals and healthcare-provider offices.
However, the CDC and other public-health sources do not recommend face shields as a substitute for face masks because face shields are not tightly fit and may not provide the reduction in tiny respiratory droplets or aerosols compared with a well-constructed, snugly fitted cloth face covering. There is no current research on the efficacy of face shields when it comes to source control—that is, eliminating or controlling the source of an infection, which, in the case of COVID-19, would be the transmission of pathogens from an infected individual to people or surfaces nearby.
That said, if you are one of those very few individuals who cannot wear cloth face masks because of documented medical conditions, you can request a medical accommodation to wear a plastic face shield instead. If approved, you can request a face shield be provided to you in place of a face mask. The face shield must be worn at all times when and where face coverings or masks are required to be worn.
If you are approved to wear a face shield or are wearing a face shield in addition to a face mask, the shield can be reused indefinitely and is easily cleaned by rubbing all surfaces thoroughly with soap and hot water or common household disinfectants. Be sure to wash your hands after handling your face shield to avoid personal contamination from touching your face.
Check out Reopening and Campus Health and Safety FAQs to learn more.