KAUFFMAN: A story of mask confusion

Before COVID-19, I had worn two types of masks: a bandana for particularly dusty cleaning jobs (like my young teenager’s room), and an N95 when I helped sand our wood floors. The purpose of both of these face coverings was to keep tiny swirling particles out of my nose and mouth.

So at the beginning of the pandemic, when the Centers for Disease Control said masks should be reserved for hospitals, this made sense to me. Medical workers would come into contact with infected individuals, after all, and needed to block the bad “particles” from their own respiratory systems. Just like I had to block wood dust from my lungs during my floor refinishing project.

But then the CDC flipped its policy. Everyone should wear a cloth mask in public, they said. You can make one out of a T-shirt, they said.

I was unnerved by this reversal. This did not make sense to me. How was I supposed to protect myself from particles smaller than wood dust with a loose face covering? I was experiencing mask confusion.

Then I learned what the CDC had learned the hard way about this tricky virus: it spreads through apparently healthy people as well as through those who are sick. Meaning, I could be a carrier and a transmitter of COVID-19 even if I feel perfectly fine. The technical word is asymptomatic.

The realization slowly sank in: I might be breathing out death. Talking, laughing or singing, my respiratory droplets travel through the air and carry my germs to others. Like wood dust swirling out of my mouth.

And if I might be breathing out death when I feel vibrant and healthy, so might you. No wonder we were all supposed to stay home. This is rather terrifying.

Thankfully, scientific studies confirm that multi-layered cloth face masks are effective at trapping respiratory droplets. Now, I have added a third kind of mask to my life experience, with a new purpose. Instead of keeping bad particles out, my mask keeps my personal particles in.

Wearing a cloth mask is an action that I take for others’ safety, not my own. To use a car analogy, instead of a seat belt for me, my mask is a seat belt for you. This is a new way of thinking for all of us.

Mask confusion is normal, because this new type of mask is like nothing we have worn before. But now, cloth masks are an essential part of stopping the spread of COVID-19 along with social distancing, hand washing and staying at home when we have symptoms.

As the economy reopens, we will come into contact with more and more people. But friends, the virus is still here. We must remain vigilant to avoid transmitting it to others unknowingly, especially in enclosed spaces like storefronts and workplaces. Remember, cloth mask wearing is not about keeping others’ germs out, but keeping our own germs in.

My mask protects you, and your mask protects me. A true community effort!

For instructions on how to make, wear, remove and wash a cloth mask, search “CDC cloth face coverings” in your web browser.

Chrissie Kaufmann is a group fitness instructor at the YMCA of Greater Michiana.