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When and Why You Should Wear a Face Mask In Your Own Home

When and Why You Should Wear a Face Mask In Your Own Home

The constant threat posed by the coronavirus pandemic makes a lot of simple activities more challenging, even home repairs. Despite how fixing something like a broken window might only take 15 minutes, having a repairman in the house (even with a mask on) might force us to ask essential questions. Is it ever safe for us to take our masks off? Can we open our house windows, and if so, for how long? Should I spray disinfectant in the air? Is there anything else we can do to protect our families?

As we continue to spend month after month in quarantine at home to keep a safe distance from others, having an outsider come over to visit us is simultaneously worrying and confusing. Many people in this scenario would have a wide range of questions running through their minds. Should we only be concerned about strangers visiting our homes? Or what about our family and friends who come over? Most of all, what about the other people we already share our homes with?

Most people instinctively wear a mask when leaving their homes. After months of this pandemic, people are already conditioned to keep their faces covered at all times. Still, it's unclear whether or not we should wear masks when we're indoors. So, we decided to ask experts for advice. Much to our surprise, some infectious diseases experts say there are indeed two situations where we should wear masks inside our own homes.

When Someone From A Different Household Comes Over

According to Snoiya Gandhi, MD and Associate Chief Medical Officer at Cedar-Sinai/Marina Del Rey Hospital, everyone inside the home should wear the mask whenever you have visitors who aren't members of the immediate household. That means you, your visitors, and anyone else on the premises should mask up. She adds that some people might not even show symptoms, yet they could carry the virus. So, managing the risk with masks and keeping a safe physical distance is key to staying safe.

The type of mask that you use also makes a difference. Thomas A. Russo, Chief of the division of infectious diseases at the Buffalo Jacobs School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, points to N95 type, surgical, or well-fitting multilayered cloth masks being the only acceptable types. According to him, bandanas, scarves, gators, and particularly masks with valves are not effective. If the wearer is infectious, these masks will do nothing to stop them from spreading the disease towards other people.

Russo adds that in theory, if you and your visitor are wearing masks the proper way (i.e. over the nose and mouth and extending over the chin, snug all around) without ever taking it off, you face a very low risk of getting infected by an outsider visiting your home.

Of course, the same rules also apply when receiving friends and family from other households as guests. According to her, people are quick to assume that the risks are lower around friends and family, which is a wrong assumption to make.

On the plus side, Russo points out that you can take your mask off soon after your guests leave. Still, he suggests wearing your mask for at least 30 minutes after they leave if your home isn't well-ventilated, or if you're vulnerable or unsure and would like to be extra-careful.

When someone in your home is sick
Suppose someone in your house experiences COVID symptoms, similar to the ones you get from a common cold like stuffy nose, fever, and a sore throat. If that's the case, then it'll be a good idea for both them and you to wear a mask when in shared spaces, until they get tested appropriately. Gandhi highlights that you should assume those symptoms point to COVID until you have test results that prove otherwise. In the meantime, anyone with symptoms should get tested, isolate themselves, and even use a separate bathroom from everyone else.

Russo, on the other hand, suggests keeping your mask on for as long as 30 minutes after you leave a sick person's space, especially if you're vulnerable. He says that it's because there's still the possibility of aerosols escaping that room whenever someone opens the door.

Beyond Masks, Here Are A Few Helpful Things To Do

Keep a distance of at least six feet from other people. 
Russo highlights that close proximity is the most crucial factor driving COVID transmission. He adds that respiratory secretions, droplets and aerosols. Droplets are larger and hold more of the infectious virus, though they fall out in just seconds. Aerosols, on the other hand, are smaller and can stay suspended in the air much longer, travelling further around in the meantime.

The relative importance of aerosols is controversial. Apparently, you'll get a mix of aerosols and droplets at higher concentrations even within the range of six feet. Aerosols, some claim, can stay suspended in the air for 30 minutes, though Russo adds, some experiments show they can stay suspended in the air for up to three hours.

Open Your Windows
According to Russo, ventilation is key. While everyone is masked up, good ventilation can help decrease the risk of infection while a visitor enters the space, by circulating respiratory droplets and aerosols. As for how long you should keep those windows open, Russo says it depends on the weather and your tolerance for risk.

At the end of the day, Russo and Gandhi both say that it's always better to practice extra caution in any situation. Russo rightfully points out that it only takes one person to infect you, and despite the 1% chance of someone being infected, that one person could be the repairman that comes in to fix your window. He adds that the science now shows even in people with little or no symptoms, the coronavirus could cause long-term damage in other organs of their bodies. Therefore, Russo says, everyone should consider themselves somewhat vulnerable and make every effort to protect themselves.

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