Does wearing makeshift masks help, work? We asked a Central DuPage doctor.

  • Libertyville residents Dan and Ginny Boggs wear protective masks and gloves during their grocery shopping trip to Sunset Food in Libertyville on Friday.

      Libertyville residents Dan and Ginny Boggs wear protective masks and gloves during their grocery shopping trip to Sunset Food in Libertyville on Friday. Paul Valade | Staff Photographer

  • Dr. Douglas Ambler, medical director of quality, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group

    Dr. Douglas Ambler, medical director of quality, Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group Courtesy of William Koechling

 
 
Updated 4/3/2020 7:15 PM

By now we have all seen it: Friends and neighbors wearing masks while shopping for groceries. Or pulling their turtleneck collars up around their noses. Or sporting a bandanna tied around their face, like some Old West movie bank robber.

Is there any point to doing that? Can a store-bought or homemade mask save us from catching COVID-19?

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

We asked Dr. Douglas Ambler, medical director of quality for Northwestern Medicine Regional Medical Group and an internal medicine physician at Central DuPage Hospital.

Ambler said a mask made with a tight weave of material and a tight fit on the face works best to provide some protection, but he stressed social distancing remains the primary weapon in the fight to stay healthy.

He said the N95 masks' filtering capability is best, followed by disposable surgical masks, then cloth.

Q: Should I wear a surgical mask when I go out in public?

A: Doing so will give other people some protection from you, if you are an unwitting carrier of the virus, he said. Masks do two things: They decrease the chance that an asymptomatic carrier of coronavirus spreads large droplets containing the virus. And they keep your fingertips away from your mouth and nose. "That's where cloth masks could be of some benefit," he said.

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Q: Will a surgical mask keep me from getting the disease?

A: Only if you and the people you encounter practice good social distancing, Ambler said. Because the masks do not keep you from breathing in aerosolized virus, where the particles are small. Aerosolized virus comes out when people breathe out, as opposed to coughing or sneezing. Aerosolized virus can linger in the air, sometimes as long as 30 minutes, he said. Large droplets, however, fall due to their weight, landing on surfaces.

Q: Homemade masks: Best fabric?

A: Ambler doesn't know, but he said the tighter the weave, the better. Fit is important. It should be snug against your face. And how you take it off is important. Don't touch the mask part of the mask. Wash your hands afterward. If it is a cloth mask, launder it at least once a day. "Really, the cloth mask is minimizing that asymptomatic carrier state," he said.

Q: Are you wearing a mask when you go to the grocery store?

A: He admits to not being the best at wearing a mask when he leaves the hospital, such as from the building to his car. But now, to a store, "Yes, I would," he said.

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