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Yes, wearing a mask can help protect you from getting COVID-19, even if others aren’t wearing them

As many people are removing their masks on planes, experts say wearing one can still offer you some protection against COVID-19, even if everyone else is maskless.

Masks aren’t required on U.S. flights for now after a federal judge lifted a nationwide mask mandate covering planes and other forms of public transportation, though the Department of Justice is filing an appeal to overturn the decision after a request from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The lifting of the mask mandate has led some people on social media to express their concerns for immunocompromised passengers.

Some medical experts, including Leana Wen, M.D., a public health professor at George Washington University and CNN medical analyst, have previously said that “one-way masking,” where someone is wearing a high-quality mask but others around them are not, still protects the wearer from COVID-19. 

THE QUESTION

Can wearing a mask help protect you from getting COVID-19, even if others aren’t wearing one?

THE SOURCES

THE ANSWER

This is true.

Yes, wearing a mask can help protect you from getting COVID-19, even if others aren’t wearing them. But experts say universal masking offers the most protection from COVID-19.

WHAT WE FOUND

While the CDC no longer advises indoor masking for most people with low or medium COVID-19 levels in their community, the public health agency has said since at least 2021 that masks protect the wearer as well as surrounding people from contracting the virus.

In a statement on April 20, the CDC said it continues to recommend that people wear masks in indoor public transportation settings like planes.

“When people wear a well-fitting mask or respirator over their nose and mouth in indoor travel or public transportation settings, they protect themselves, and those around them, including those who are immunocompromised or not yet vaccine-eligible, and help keep travel and public transportation safer for everyone,” the statement reads in part. 

Well-fitting N95 masks offer the most protection against COVID-19, while cloth masks offer the least amount of protection, CDC mask guidance says. 

3M, a company that manufactures masks and other medical supplies, explains on its website that N95 masks “can help protect you while you breathe in.” Cloth or single-use surgical masks, on the other hand, are “more about helping protect those around you as you talk, cough or sneeze.” Because cloth and surgical masks fit loosely on the face, they do not provide protection to the wearer from germs transmitted by coughs or sneezes, 3M says. 

Studies have also shown that a high-quality mask offers the wearer protection against COVID-19, even if others aren’t wearing them. 

One European study published in December 2021 found that the risk of infection reached 90% when a person wearing a surgical mask had been talking for 30 minutes with a person who was infected and not wearing a mask. When the person who wasn’t infected wore a filtering facepiece mask, which is essentially the European equivalent of an N95 mask, the risk of infection was 20% after an hour of speaking.

When both people wore surgical masks, the risk of infection remained below 30% after one hour but was just 0.4% when both people wore a well-fitting filtering facepiece mask.

The study’s authors concluded that wearing “appropriate masks” provides “excellent protection for oneself and others.” They also said “universal masking,” where everyone wears a mask, is the “most effective method” of reducing airborne COVID-19 transmission. 

Saralyn Mark, M.D., agreed that “one-way masking” can offer the wearer some protection against COVID-19, though there is more protection if others around you are also wearing masks. It’s also important that your mask fits well and is worn correctly, she said. 

An expert at the University of Washington says you can improve the fit of your N95 or KN95 mask by pinching the metal nose clip around the bridge of your nose. KN95 masks are an N95 design that have been manufactured and tested overseas rather than the U.S.

If you’re wearing an N95, one strap should be above your ears and the other should be around your neck. You can also reuse N95 or KN95 masks several times if they are clean and not damaged, experts say.

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