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The home for VPR's coverage of health and health industry issues affecting the state of Vermont.

Behind The Mask: What You Need To Know About Mask-Wearing, Making And Buying

Displayed cloth face masks in different colors.
Pam Cross, Courtesy
While facial coverings are not required in Vermont, Gov. Scott and his administration are encouraging the use of masks when in public areas to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, we've received many questions about masks. This hour: we'll have a doctor on to answer your questions about the effectiveness of masks during a pandemic. We'll also hear about how a facial covering mandate is panning out in neighboring Massachusetts, and learn about the ways Vermonters and local businesses are supplying masks to their community members. 

Our guests are:

  • Dr. Josh White, chief medical officer at Gifford Medical Center
  • Milton Valencia, metro reporter at The Boston Globe
  • Angela Gerace, makes masks for community members in Winooski
  • Erin Desautels, founder of VTMasks4Good

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at 1 p.m. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

You can find our conversation with Boston Globe reporter Milton Valencia about how a statewide mask mandate is playing out in Massachusetts, here.

Since the beginning of COVID-19, we've received many questions about masks. In this recorded conversation, we speak with a doctor to debunk myths about masks in this pandemic, and a reporter from Massachusetts about how a facial covering mandate is panning out there. We also learn about the ways Vermonters and local businesses are supplying masks to their community members with a list or resources for our listeners in need of a mask.

Our guests are:

  • Dr. Josh White, chief medical officer at Gifford Medical Center
  • Milton Valencia, metro reporter at The Boston Globe
  • Angela Gerace, makes masks for community members in Winooski
  • Erin Desautels, founder of VTMasks4Good

Broadcast live on Wednesday, July 1, 2020 at 1 p.m. Rebroadcast at 7 p.m.

The following has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Busting The Myths Around Masks With A Chief Medical Officer

Myth: Wearing a mask doesn’t stop the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Josh White: What masks do is they stop aerosol and droplets from coming out of your mouth when you're speaking or coughing, such that early on, they were designed for surgeons when they're in the operating room, so that if that individual coughs, they're not doing it into an open wound. That being said, there came a realization that people that are infected with things such as influenza or in this case COVID-19, are spreading those virus particles in droplets and in aerosol. And if you put something over your face, it can catch those. And so, while you may not be wearing a mask to protect yourself, per say, you're doing it for everyone else around you. And if everyone is wearing a mask, then we're all protected.

More from NPR: Aerosols, Droplets, Fomities: What We Know About Transmission of COVID-19.

Myth: There isn't any science to prove that masks are curbing the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Josh White: There's not a huge amount of science out there. That being said, people have been gathering data like crazy since COVID started to evaluate this.And they're starting to come out with a body of science that is very, very promising. There was a study published in May in the New England Journal of Medicine just looking at droplets and their ability to pass through cloth, and they use a wash washcloth in this particular study and it stops nearly all droplets.

More from VPR: State Unveils Rules For College Campus Reopenings This Fall

One study found that where there was a mandate, the increasing cases dropped by up to 2%, which doesn't sound like a lot, but that was predicted to prevent 250,000 to 450,000 cases of COVID-19. So that's quite significant.

There were the reports, from Great Clips salon in Springfield, Mo., where two stylists were positive for COVID and were infectious. They were symptomatic, and they wore masks. And they had close contact with 140 other people and nobody [who was tested] became infected.

More from NPR: More States Require Masks In Public As COVID-19 Spreads, But Enforcement Lags

Myth: All masks are equally effective in stopping the spread of the virus. 

Dr. Josh White: There is difficulty in evaluating the effectiveness of masks, because even of those that are commercially produced, there are many, many different kinds of masks out there. But there is definitely a difference. And the most effective barrier is an N95. That being said, using those correctly is difficult, and they have to be fitted to ensure that they work. And for those who do and wear them for a long time, it's not comfortable.

"And so, if a cloth mask is not 100% effective, that doesn't necessarily matter that much if everyone is wearing them." -Dr. Josh White, Chief Medical Officer at Gifford Medical Center

The commercially produced medical surgical masks are the next-best. And then the cloth masks are the lowest on the totem pole because often times that cloth was produced for a t-shirt or something similar.

When we're talking about protecting others and not so much yourself, we're talking about degrees of efficacy, and when you apply that over an entire population, that makes a big difference. And so, [even] if a cloth mask is not 100% effective, that doesn't necessarily matter that much if everyone is wearing them. 

More from VPR: Vermont Providers, Patients, Learn To Lean On Telemedicine During Pandemic

Myth: There are no exceptions to who should wear a mask for age, ability or circumstance. 

Dr. Josh White: I've certainly run into circumstances where people have a history of trauma, and that is something to be considered. And I have found that if that individual is willing to work with somebody in the field of mental health, as a general rule, that anxiety can be overcome and you can use small or less restrictive masks, at least to begin with. But there is no one-size-fits-all approach when dealing with these kinds of things. It's a balance that we have to walk as a population.

As a general rule, you wouldn't want someone under two to wear a mask. You never know what a baby is going to do and you wouldn't want them to suffocate themselves. And they don't have the motor control to move or adjust the mask. And the bottom line is, the odds that a child is going to effectively use a mask and leave it in place is low anyways. It is also possible that a person could have a significant respiratory condition that would prevent them from wearing a mask, but that's not going to be true for most folks because a well-fitting mask doesn't restrict airflow to a significant degree.

More from VPR: Vermont Deputy Health Commissioner On Staying Safe This Summer

Amid Economic Downturn, One Vermonter Turns to Selling Masks

Erin Desautels is the founder of VT Masks For Good, a recently formed business that sells masks from Burlington.

Jane Lindholm: So Erin, how did you get started making masks?

Erin Desautels: Well, I actually have an office out here at Burlington International Airport, and when COVID-19 became this reality, the director of the airport, Gene Richards, was asked to help the city of Burlington in procuring things for the city for this effort. My office is here and it was a really scary time, and he said, "Erin, would you help me?" And I said, "Of course." And so I began helping with this big project of making 20,000 masks for the city of Burlington. I found myself driving around the countryside with cotton and elastic and delivering all of these things and after that was done, I saw that there was going to be a greater need. So I continued on this path.

And you actually sell masks, so this has sort of transitioned into a business for you. And does this help supplement from a loss of business in other areas for you?

Erin Desautels: Oh, of course, it definitely does. It does help me. My business relies pretty much solely on the aviation industry. And as you I'm sure have heard, that is challenged at this point. So, yeah, it does help me. 

Erin, is the demand still there? I mean, are people buying multiple masks, are some people still not finding that they have a reusable mask?

Erin Desautels: The demand is there. I do get businesses that call me that definitely need to help their employees in going back to work and staying safe. And so I do work with businesses as well as individuals who call me and ask, you know, hey, can you help me? Or they come to my website or they find me somehow. 

1,500 Made And Still Counting: One Vermonter's Story Of Donating Masks To Essential Workers

Angela Gerace has been making and donating masks from her home base in Winooski since the beginning of the pandemic.

Jane Lindholm: What got you started with making masks? 

Angela Gerace: I work part time for the Shelburne Police Department and I also own my own business, the Tipsy Pickle, and I happened to realize that supplies were starting to get low or hard to find. So with that in mind, I decided to start looking up patterns to make my own face masks, just so I could make them for my family and keep them protected. So they unfortunately were the guinea pigs for the first trials as I tried to get this down.

But then I was able to use my business, the Tipsy Pickle, to go ahead and promote that I was making face masks. I wanted to get as many masks out to essential workers, which in my area include those at a lot of small businesses, such as Vermont breweries and distilleries and storefronts that support my business. I wanted to help protect them and support them the way they've been supporting me. And then, with putting it out there on social media, I wound up getting contacted from places all over the United States, even out of this country. And so I've just been making them as I can and putting them out for free. Just doing my part to help slow the spread so we can all get back to a new norm. 

More from VPR: Vermont Volunteers Are Seweing As Many Face Masks As They Can

How many do you think you've made at this point? 

Angela Gerace: At this point I’ve made over 15,00, definitely. I'm not counting anymore, I just do it when I have time.

I got a pattern for people that are hearing impaired and I've made probably over 400 masks that have gone out to families and people that are hearing impaired. I also have been able to make masks that fit people specifically for their needs. Everybody's face is different, so the standard size doesn't always work for someone. So it's been very rewarding to help people and find a way to help keep everybody protected. 

I mean, we're all in this together. And at times like this, we really just need to do what we can to support each other and be aware that we all have different needs. And luckily, I am able to help people in some way and it's a great honor to be able to help people. So it's good.

More from NPR: Yes, Wearing A Mask Helps. Here's Why

Where Can I Get A Face Covering In Vermont?

For the Vermont Department of Public Safety's full list of businesses selling face coverings, head here

And for the CDC's tutorial on how to make your own face mask, sew and no sew, head here

Jane Lindholm is the host, executive producer and creator of But Why: A Podcast For Curious Kids. In addition to her work on our international kids show, she produces special projects for Vermont Public. Until March 2021, she was host and editor of the award-winning Vermont Public program Vermont Edition.
Emily was a Vermont Edition producer at Vermont Public Radio until September 2021.
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