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An infectious disease specialist dispels face mask myths

As a public service, Perry Memorial Hospital & Shaw Media have partnered to provide open access to information related to the COVID-19 (Coronavirus) emergency. Sign up for the newsletter here

Illinois has employed a face mask order since May 1. Starting almost two months ago, Illinois residents ages 2 years and older have been required to wear a mask or face covering in public places and in situations where they can't socially distance from others.

According to guidance from the Illinois State Board of Education, that also will go for students in school when the fall term begins.

Public health experts have touted the benefit of masks as one of the few available tools for everyone to help prevent the spread of COVID-19. It has been cited as a reason why a hair salon in Missouri that saw more than 140 clients did not spread COVID-19 to any of its customers despite two stylists having the virus, according to the local county health department.

But with relatively new orders and health guidance comes misinformation and anxiety.

Dr. Irfan Hafiz, an infectious disease specialist with Northwestern Medicine, spoke about the importance of wearing a mask and some of the myths regarding wearing a face mask in an interview with Shaw Media.

"In the community, the main reason to wear the mask is in case you are presymptomatic or an asymptomatic carrier, that you are reducing the amount of virus you're spreading," Hafiz said. "That could make the difference between whether you infect others or not."

Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike took it a step further during a news conference last week.

“I’m likening the refusal to wear face coverings to a game of Russian roulette, as we don’t know who’s infected. We don’t know if we are infected. We’re just taking a chance," Ezike said. "This game of [Russian roulette] is a game that is very risky. The stakes are high. It’s potentially fatal. Let’s not gamble with coronavirus. We don’t even know the long-term effects of having COVID-19, what might happen to our lungs five, 10, 20 years after being infected.”

One of the biggest pieces of misinformation on masks is the false belief that wearing a mask will reduce oxygen levels and cause hypoxia.

"If you just think about it, surgeons will wear masks for 10-12 hours at a time in the operating room, staff does that. That's not new – that's been going on for multiple decades and we've not had that issue there," Hafiz said.

Another myth is that people shouldn't have to wear a mask if they don't have symptoms or if they aren't in a higher-risk category for COVID-19.

"The issue for the mask isn't necessarily for you to not get the disease but to not spread to others, and therefore if only the high-risk people are wearing the mask, again it's not to prevent them [from getting it], it's really to prevent [spread to] those that they are being exposed to," Hafiz said.

Hafiz also offered advice for parents or teachers working with children in order to successfully get them to wear a mask, adding it's more often the parents who are anxious rather than the child.

"Surprisingly, they adapt very well," Hafiz said. "It's almost like a fun game. I've seen kids put characters and some funny stuff on there, and surprisingly, they really adapt very well to that."

Hafiz said that guidance may change throughout the pandemic because the virus is new and there are more unknown factors and data, especially at the beginning of the pandemic, and it's important to keep up with current guidance.

"Depending on the pattern of the spread, there may be things that may not have been thought of at first as useful that may now be useful," he said. "And that's why things may change."

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