Busting 5 common myths about COVID-19 and masks

After nearly a year of COVID-19, mask-wearing has become an integral part of our everyday pandemic routine. It’s now second nature to put on your mask as you leave your home, and the familiar muffled breathing can feel like an omnipresent reminder of the global struggle to fight COVID-19.

Neil Maniar

Photo courtesy of Neil Maniar

But as vaccines are being administered in greater numbers, it might feel tempting to slack off on important mask protocol—to let your mask slip under your nose, or to ignore healthy distancing rules when you’re wearing one. Now more than ever, though, it’s crucial to be vigilant about wearing masks properly, says Neil Maniar, professor and associate chair of the department of health sciences at Northeastern.

Maniar busts some common myths about mask-wearing, correcting popular misconceptions and stressing the significance of wearing a mask in every social setting.

Myth: If I’m wearing a mask, I don’t need to practice physical distancing.

Fact: It is important for everyone to continue to practice physical distancing even while wearing a mask. Whether we are talking, breathing, coughing, sneezing, shouting, or singing, we are expelling droplets and particles into the air. These droplets can carry viruses from one person to another. Wearing a mask protects both the individual wearing the mask and those around them from being exposed to these droplets. However, although masks are very effective and important, they do not offer 100 percent protection. Studies have shown that during certain actions such as sneezing, coughing, shouting, or singing, airborne virus particles can travel six feet or more. Even while wearing a mask, it is possible that viruses can be expelled through mask material or around the sides if the mask doesn’t fit properly. By combining mask wearing with physical distancing, we reduce the likelihood of infection by reducing the amount of virus expelled into the air and increasing the distance between individuals.

Myth: I won’t need to wear a mask after I get vaccinated for COVID-19.

Fact: Individuals still need to wear a mask after getting vaccinated for COVID-19. The efficacy of the currently available COVID-19 vaccines is related to the ability of the vaccine to prevent severe illness, hospitalization, and death from infection. The studies have not yet determined how effective the vaccines are in preventing transmission of the virus from one person to another. We know that the antibodies produced by the current vaccines are present in the blood and around the organs in sufficient quantities to prevent severe illness; however, we do not yet know if the antibodies produced by these vaccines are present in sufficient quantities in nasal and oral mucous membranes to prevent the virus from replicating and being transmitted by vaccinated individuals. Until we have this information, it is important for everyone to wear a mask and practice social distancing after getting vaccinated because they may be asymptomatic carriers of the virus.

Myth: I don’t need to wear a mask if I’ve already had and recovered from COVID-19.

Fact: It is important that individuals continue to wear a mask after recovering from COVID-19. There are many reasons for this, including reinfection, the presence of COVID-19 variants, and the possibility of being an asymptomatic carrier. Although it may feel like this pandemic has been going on forever, we are still in the early innings when it comes to understanding the long-term impact of infection. We don’t know how long antibodies produced by infection may last and there are many cases of individuals who have been infected again. It is also possible that individuals who have recovered from COVID-19 can be asymptomatic carriers of the virus, and therefore wearing a mask will protect both the individual who has recovered and those around them. In addition, we are seeing an increasing number of cases from COVID-19 variants. As viruses replicate, they can change their genetic makeup to change how they behave. There is increasing evidence that individuals who were infected with the original strain of COVID-19 can be reinfected with a variant such as the ones from England, South Africa, or Brazil (just to name a few). Wearing a mask offers protection from this.

Myth: My mask just needs to cover my mouth, not my nose.

Fact: The purpose of wearing a mask is to prevent the transmission of the virus from one person to another. SARS-CoV-2, which is the virus associated with COVID-19, exists in the nasal passages as well as other areas such as the mouth and throat. When we exhale or sneeze, we expel droplets into the air which may contain the virus. If the mask only covers the mouth, then there is a significant risk of expelling nasal droplets containing the virus into the air. Similarly, when we inhale, droplets in the air may enter the nasal passage if it is not covered. The mucous membranes in the nose are fertile ground for viral replication and subsequent infection. Making sure that your mask fits properly and covers both the mouth and nose is an important way to keep yourself and those around you safe.

Myth: Masks only protect others, not the wearer.

Fact: Recent guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and evidence from recent studies confirms that mask use protects both the wearer and those around them. We know that wearing a well-fitting mask significantly reduces the number of droplets and aerosol particles, which may contain the virus, expelled into the air. According to a recent study, masks block almost 80 percent of all respiratory droplets. Studies have also shown that wearing a mask additionally reduces the wearer’s exposure to droplets and aerosol particles that are in the air around them. The logic behind this is clear: If there are viral particles in the air, then wearing a properly-fitting mask that covers both the nose and mouth will make it less likely that those particles will enter the mask wearer’s nose or mouth. This is particularly important with some of the new variants of the virus that seem to be much more transmissible. Evidence to support this also comes from incidents where hair stylists who were COVID-positive and likely still infectious worked with dozens of clients. When both individuals (stylist and client) were wearing masks, none of the clients developed infection.