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Three Central Pennsylvania Doctors weigh in on mask wearing effectiveness against COVID-19

WPMT Harrisburg logo WPMT Harrisburg 7/2/2020 Chelsea Koerbler
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Face masks are now required to be worn outside when social distancing is not possible. These guidelines expand the original order issued in April requiring all Pennsylvanians to wear a mask inside businesses. 

RELATED: Wolf administration urges Pennsylvanians to wear masks, avoid large gatherings over July 4 weekend

RELATED: State Health Secretary signs order requiring residents to wear masks whenever they're in public

Since COVID-19 emerged in the United States this year, there's been conflicting information about if wearing a face mask is effective. 

"We've come to the realization that masks are important," said Dr. Timothy Craig, an allergy and immunology specialist at Penn State Hershey Medical Center. "So, unfortunately scientists led to that confusion. I think it's pretty clear now face masks give you protection, not as much as we would like, but it definitely protect other people around you." 

Dr. Craig says, a change in mask wearing guidelines comes as medical experts learn more about the way the novel coronavirus is spread. 

"Initially, we didn't think the aerosol problem was that great," said Dr. Craig. "We knew it was partially aerosol but now we know more."

Dr. Craig said while he understands people have a right to not wear a mask, he hopes they'll reconsider as new evidence on mask wearing efficacy continues to emerge. 

"We have our own personal rights but we're talking about social responsibilities now," said Dr. Craig. "We really have to think about protecting those around us."

While much of the focus is on the elderly or those dying for the virus, Dr. Craig said, young people who contract the disease could have long-term complications. 

"We don't see all the people in the grey area who had bad lung disease and can't play basketball, complications from being intubated," said Dr. Craig. "Even young people at risk."

Dr. Craig was just one of three doctors to speak with FOX43 about if wearing a face mask is effective in preventing the spread of COVID-19. All three doctors said people should wear a mask when they can't social distance, even outside. That guideline was part of the new order signed by State Department of Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine. 

RELATED: Department of Health provides update on coronavirus: 832 new positives bring statewide total to 88,074

"Countries where they have included mask wearing have had a downward trend of COVID-19," said Dr. John Goldman, infectious disease specialist at UPMC Pinnacle.

Studies done the past couple months show wearing a face mask can be effective in preventing the spread against COVID-19. One study, like Dr. Goldman said, showed states with face mask mandates had a downward trend of COVID-19 compared to states that did not have mandates. 

Another study also found mortality rates from COVID-19 were lower in countries with mask mandates. "In countries with cultural norms or government policies supporting public mask-wearing, per-capita coronavirus mortality increased on average by just 8.0% each week, as compared with 54% each week in remaining countries."

Another study also suggests wearing a face mask can prevent COVID-19 spread in high-risk situations. This study looked at a patient who had COVID-19 on a 350-passenger 15-hour flight to Toronto. The patient wore mask, and the study found no one in close proximity contracted the virus. More information on all these studies can be found here.

All doctors agree, N-95 masks are the most effective, but wearing any face covering is better than not wearing one at all. 

"I'll be the first to admit, they're uncomfortable," said Dr. Goldman. "I don't like wearing mine but, I would much rather be a little bit uncomfortable than either get sick myself or if I become sick expose someone else." 

Dr. Goldman says, by universal masking of staff at UPMC Pinnacle they've been able to basically eliminate any COVID-19 transmission within the hospital. 

"We have not seen any transmission from patients to providers," said Dr. Goldman. "And we've eliminated provider to provider transmission because when people are wearing masks, it is much less likely they are going to get the disease." 

I asked the doctors if wearing a mask could cause low oxygen levels, bacterial infections or if wearing a cloth mask isn't effective. 

When it comes to the question of masks lowering oxygen levels, Dr. Goldman said, "I'm going to put this bluntly, if you are worried about your oxygen levels going down, if you get COVID-19 they're going to go down a lot farther and a lot quicker than they would with a mask." 

Dr. Goldman also said, there would only be a bacterial infection risk if the person is letting their mask get soiled and is not washing or disposing it frequently. He also said, a cloth mask is better than no mask. And to remember mask wearing won't happen for forever.

"No one is asking you to wear a mask for the rest of your life," said Dr. Goldman. "People are asking you to wear a mask or a short period of time. One to two-years, to keep you safe and other people safe."

Dr. Joseph Irwin, a family physician with WellSpan Family Medicine said, "Unfortunately it's become politicized away from the health reasons of why we do it for each other."

Dr. Irwin said it is normal to feel uncomfortable when first beginning to wear a mask, but the more often you wear one the quicker you'll get used to it.

"People will feel as though they are working harder to breath," said Dr. Irwin. "It's new to everyone and those not in the medical field it's 100 percent new. When I was a medical student, it's a little tough but you get used to it."

To emphasize the importance of wearing a mask, Dr. Irwin gave the example of a sterile operating room and said, "everyone in the operating room wears masks because it's been proven to reduce the infection in the vulnerable patient. The surgeon, anyone, is wearing a mask or the entire procedure and might be standing there four to six hours at a time. Somehow they are able to wear masks continuously." 

The doctors says people with medical conditions like COPD, severe asthma or lung disease will have difficulty wearing a mask but should also stay home as much as possible because they are at a higher risk of having complications from the virus. 

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