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Confused About Face Masks? An Infectious Disease Expert Answered All Of Our Questions

Dr. Richard Novak from UIC discusses the science behind face masks and how to properly make, wear and care for your mask.

Michaella DeVetter and Alicia Oesterreich walk their dogs in Humboldt Park on Tuesday, April 7, 2020.
Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
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CHICAGO — All Americans, regardless of health status, should wear face masks to combat the spread of coronavirus, according to newly updated recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

So, what does that mean for you?

Dr. Richard Novak is the head of the Division of Infectious Diseases at University of Illinois at Chicago. His team is on the front lines of the city’s fight against coronavirus and he chatted with Block Club about masks — when to wear them, what kind to wear and why they should never take the place of social distancing.

“Social distancing, it seems to be working here in Illinois,” he said. “We gotta stick to the plan. Keep your eye on the prize, so to speak.”

Why do I need to wear a mask?

COVID-19 is an incredibly contagious respiratory disease spread through the droplets we emit when we cough. A face mask “catches” your droplets, therefore protecting the people around you, Novak said.

“The purpose primarily is to keep the person wearing them from coughing out droplets,” Novak said. “It’s protecting the rest of the public from what they might be exhaling.”

The CDC recommends children under the age of 2 and adults who have trouble breathing or cannot remove a mask on their own not wear masks.

But I’m not coughing. Do I need to wear a mask?


Even if you are healthy, you should wear a mask. People who are infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic for up to two weeks. During that time, however, they can still transmit the disease.

Asymptomatic carriers are among us; half of the 28 patients who tested positive for COVID-19 at a Lincoln Park clinic either had incredibly mild symptoms or had no symptoms at all.

“If everybody were wearing a mask, catching their own droplets … you wouldn’t be transmitting to anybody,” Novak said.

What’s an N95 mask, and why does a health care worker need it more than me?

The CDC recommends the general public wear cloth masks because they effectively protect other people from you.

N95 and surgical masks, on the other hand, are designed to protect you from others.

The masks filter out viral droplets in the air. This is important in a hospital setting, where health care workers are side-by-side with patients whose viral droplets contain COVID-19.

N-95s are fitted specifically to an individual health care worker’s face shape. UIC tests the effectiveness of a mask by placing a hood over the face of a worker and spraying a flavored spray into the hood. If the worker can taste the spray, the mask is not adequately fitted, Novak said.

Unlike cloth masks, which can be washed and reworn (more on that below), N95s are meant to disposable. Because of the Personal Protection Equipment shortage many health care workers are re-wearing their masks.

Do you have an unopened, unused N-95 or surgical mask? Donate it.

How do I make or buy a mask?

The CDC has three tutorials. There’s the sewing machine method, the T-shirt method and the bandanna method. Learn more here.

Use material that can be repeatedly washed and dried without affecting the mask’s shape. Cotton works well.

You can design your mask with a pocket for a removable filter. While not as effective as an N95 filter, a coffee filter or paper towel is better than nothing in terms of capturing what’s coming in, Novak said.

Surgical masks are sold out most places — and should be reserved for essential workers and medical workers, anyway. Cloth masks are still available online. Here is a guide to some stylish options. Plankroad Home Decor in Avondale is also shipping masks locally.

If you can’t make or afford a mask, at least try using a bandanna or piece of cloth to cover your nose and mouth while running any essential errands.

How do I wear my mask?

Make sure the mask fits snugly but comfortably on your face and that it covers your nose. Use ear loops made from elastic or hair ties to attach the mask around your ears.

Where should I wear my mask?

The answer is simple — wear your mask when you leave the house.

Wear it to the grocery store, the pharmacy, the gas station. Wear it on your walks in the neighborhood, but don’t go out beyond that. Everyone should be staying home as much as possible, Novak said.

Wait, I need to wear my mask in my neighborhood?

Yes. While it is true droplets evaporate quickly in open air, some droplets can become aerosolized and linger, Novak said.

In other words, even if you are practicing social distancing outdoors and staying 6 feet apart from others, there is a chance your neighbors can inhale your viral droplets.

“If you’re walking in an isolated place with no other people that’s less important,” he said. “But if you’re walking down the street in a crowded neighborhood … it’s a good idea for everybody to wear masks.”

What about runners?

Though it is uncomfortable to do so, Dr. Novak suggests runners adorn some sort of light face covering.

“It’s hard to run with a mask on,” he said. “A piece of a T-shirt, that would capture [droplets] quite a bit.”

If you are going outside to exercise, you should stay close to home, run briefly and avoid other people as much as possible.

A news story out of Belgium has been shared widely to discourage runners, but the story’s findings — that droplets left behind by runners linger in the air, requiring stricter social distancing — have not been properly studied or peer reviewed.

“I have never and nowhere discouraged people from walking, running, or cycling,” the researcher behind the droplet story told Vice News. “Rather the opposite. Maybe people should read more, and react less.”

How do I clean my mask?

Once inside your home safely remove the mask. Do not touch your eyes, nose or mouth. Wash your hands immediately.

Wash the mask in your washing machine like any other piece of clothing. Use hot water. Don’t have a laundry machine at home? Wash the mask in your sink with hot, soapy water.

“The virus is very susceptible to detergent,” Dr. Novak said. “It will disintegrate.”

Have more questions regarding face masks? Email me at

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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