To mask or not to mask?
That’s the million dollar question facing many residents of California these days. For most people in the state, wearing a mask in public places has been made mandatory in the name of combating the coronavirus — but the masks recommended to slow the spread of the virus won’t protect residents against smoke inhalation from the recent wildfires.
According to the Center for Disease Control and Protection: “Cloth masks that are used to slow the spread of COVID-19 by blocking respiratory droplets offer little protections against wildfire smoke. They do not catch small, harmful particles in smoke that can harm your health.”
Instead of cloth masks, the CDC notes that properly fitted N95 respirators do protect against wildfire smoke.
However, N95 masks are often in short supply, as they’re in high demand among health care workers.
Indeed, California state guidelines read: “Most people should wear a cloth mask. This is so there can be enough surgical masks and N95 respirators for medical personnel.”
Millions of acres have burned in California this year, causing unsafe and even hazardous air quality in the state.
The poor air quality is particularly concerning in the time of the coronavirus.
“Wildfire smoke can irritate your lungs, cause inflammation, affect your immune system, and make you more prone to lung infections, including SARS-CoV-2, the virus that cause COVID-19,” according to the CDC.
Therefore, the CDC recommends limiting exposure to the outdoors and taking other measures to protect yourself from smoke inhalation.
So what’s a Californian to do? Wear a cloth mask to help stop the spread of the coronavirus but continue to inhale smoke? Try to obtain N95 masks despite state guidance to leave those for front-line workers?
It’s a no-win situation.
Still, Dr. Daniel Dea, a pulmonary critical care physician in Burbank, told Verywell Health that cloth masks are “probably better than nothing” even though they won’t keep out microscopic particulates of smoke.
Individuals might also use basic surgical masks, which tend to fit more tightly over over the nose and under the eyes than cloth masks.
However, the CDC doesn’t provide any information on the use of surgical masks to limit smoke inhalation.
It would behoove the CDC to recognize and clarify the mass confusion that is bound to result from the mixed messaging on masks in the face of wildfires and the coronavirus.
Californians, and everyone else facing this dual threat, deserve better.
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