Wearing a mask to protect others

People wear masks for lots of reasons. When we asked newsletter readers to share their thoughts on masking, we received nearly 4,000 responses. Some expressed concern the mandate was lifted, and others were excited to remove their masks. One theme that emerged was that many people continue to wear a mask to protect others.

illustration of people walking along a city street, some wearing masks, some not.

Edith from Portland says she will continue to wear an N95 or KN95 mask in certain situations, such as in grocery stores or when she works with her local houseless population.

“I am a street medic for unhoused Portlanders, so I choose whether to wear masks depending upon the situation; trying to prevent the most vulnerable people from getting sick,” Edith said. “I take very seriously my responsibility to protect and care for people and contribute to society and social justice, so I try to be a good role model and a cheerful messenger.”

Abigail in Eugene said she understands that a lot of people are “excited to get back to ‘normal,’” but she thinks about her unvaccinated children under five when she wears a mask, as well as others who are vulnerable to COVID-19.

“Wearing a mask is simple, effective and, at this point, a truly kind gesture or effort to protect very vulnerable populations,” said Abigail.

COVID-19 spreads when an infected person breathes out droplets and tiny particles that contain the virus. A well-fitting mask can trap these particles and reduce the chance of transmitting the virus to others.

“To maximize mask efficiency, you need effective filtering material and a tight fit to the face,” said Dr. Ali Hamade, senior health advisor at the Oregon Health Authority. “The better the combination of these two qualities, the fewer virus-laden particles we can release if we are infected.”

Additionally, Hamade said, “Keep in mind that N95s and similar quality face coverings are best used in crowded indoor settings, or when one is staying indoors for longer periods of time with others, especially if the others are at higher risk of severe COVID-19. For brief grocery errands or other short times indoors—if there is no crowding—a snug-fitting cloth mask with two or more layers that covers the nose and mouth is fine for most people.”

illustration of people in line at a grocery store, one wearing a mask and the other not wearing a mask.

Some people from our newsletter survey said they are comfortable not wearing a mask around others when they go to a restaurant or bar, or a concert. But those people also said they will mask up when they engage in more essential activities, such as going to the grocery store, because they don’t want to expose others who might be at high-risk and need to shop for food.

Denise in Beavercreek will wear her KN95 mask as a “small act of kindness” while shopping or entering and exiting a restaurant because, she said, “It is respectful of others who are vulnerable because they might be immunocompromised or could not be vaccinated.”

Considering people who have compromised immune systems is especially important because of how easily the virus can spread, even from infected people with no symptoms. Early studies indicated that people without symptoms were responsible for more than half of COVID-19 transmission. More recent studies suggest Omicron may have even higher levels of asymptomatic transmission than previous variants.

Each COVID-19 variant (Alpha, Beta, Delta, Omicron) has gotten progressively more contagious. Omicron is about four-to-six times more contagious than the original strain and might have swept across the planet faster than any virus in human history. The fact that Omicron is so contagious and is often spread by people who do not have symptoms is more reason to wear a mask around those who may be more vulnerable. This is especially relevant with the resurging number of COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations in recent weeks.

Kristen from Bend thinks primarily of those around her.

“I will wear a mask around friends or others who do not feel comfortable un-masking yet because everyone has a different comfort level,” she said. “I care how this makes them feel.”

Kristen notes that she doesn’t worry much about catching COVID-19 herself, except that it could prevent her from traveling or attending “events that have kept me sane during the pandemic.” But, she said, “I am more concerned about the population who is still at risk.”

Note: Responses from readers have been lightly edited for length or clarity.