Wearing face masks to protect against respiratory viruses is nothing new at St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Patients and staff have been doing this for years because it is a proven method of infection prevention.
And it has been successful in preventing the spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, which causes COVID-19. As part of the hospital’s COMPASS program, St. Jude implemented universal masking at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020.
“As a result of precautions such as mask wearing, there have been no cases of transmission between staff members or between staff and patients when wearing face masks,” said Hana Hakim, MD, associate member of the Infectious Diseases Department at St. Jude. "This by itself is proof that wearing face masks is effective."
Before the pandemic, staff and patients wore face masks in certain situations. For example, staff were required to wear a face mask when working with patients with respiratory symptoms such as a cough or runny nose.
Patients who are neutropenic or have low blood counts have always worn surgical masks or N-95 face masks, also called white duck-billed masks, when going out in public. N-95 masks offer the best protection from airborne germs. Staff are also instructed to use N-95 masks in certain situations, such as when providing care to patients with COVID-19 or tuberculosis.
“We are not reinventing the wheel,” Hakim said. “This is something we’ve known about for a long time.”
N-95 masks are only meant for use in clinical settings. The general public should not use them, so that are plenty in supply for hospital use and for immunocompromised patients.
How Masks Protect Us
When worn properly, wearing a face mask plays two roles in preventing infection. SARS-CoV-2 is primarily spread through respiratory droplets when people talk, sing, sneeze, or cough.
- A face mask blocks respiratory droplets from spreading into the air around the person. It protects others.
- A face mask also reduces the number of droplets inhaled by the wearer.
Masks work best when everyone wears them.
Several studies have documented the effectiveness of wearing face masks. A recent randomized study involving more than 340,000 people in Bangladesh found that wearing a surgical face mask can decrease transmission of COVID-19 in real-life settings. Read more about the study conducted by Yale and Stanford universities.
What Types of Masks Are Best
On campus, St. Jude employees are required to wear medical grade masks provided by the hospital. They are made of polypropylene material that filters droplet particles and have a nose wire that allows the mask to fit snugly on the face. The masks have been tested by a certified, third-party lab.
It is highly recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), even if fully vaccinated, to wear a face mask indoors when in a public area. When outdoors, consider wearing a mask in crowded settings and when you could be around people who are unvaccinated. Cloth masks are OK if used properly.
“Some masks work better than others. A cloth mask can provide some protection if the right cloth mask is used correctly,” Hakim said. “You should choose a two- or three-layered cloth mask made of tightly woven fabrics such as high thread count cotton. It should fit snugly on your face to contain your droplets when talking, sneezing or coughing, and to block other people’s droplets from reaching your nose and mouth.”
How to Choose a Cloth Mask
Here is a guide from the CDC.
DO choose masks that:
- Have two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric
- Completely cover your mouth, nose, and chin
- Fit snugly against the sides of your face and don’t have gaps
- Have a nose wire to prevent air from leaking out of the top of the mask
DO NOT choose masks that
- Have exhalation valves. They allow air to escape.
- Are made of fabric that makes it hard to breathe, for example, vinyl
- Only have one layer
For more information, visit the CDC’s Your Guide to Masks.