Debunking myths about wearing masks

Posted at 4:02 PM, Jul 23, 2020

From websites to social media, everywhere you look online you'll likely find a lot of information (and misinformation) about wearing a face mask during the COVID-19 pandemic. Among these are reasons why it’s supposedly unhealthy to wear a mask.

One of the most popular excuses for not wearing a mask is the claim that they lower your immune system function. This is false, says Dr. Mark Lewis, a medical oncologist and director of gastrointestinal oncology at Intermountain Healthcare.

One of the other most common reasons touted for not wanting to wear a mask is the claim that they reduce oxygen levels and increase carbon dioxide. This is also false, as proven by Dr. Lewis, who posted a video of a test he performed on Twitter that went viral.

To demonstrate this experiment, Dr. Lewis used a device called a pulse oximeter. It fits over a finger and provides a quick readout about the oxygen saturation in the blood.

Normal levels are between 95-100% in a healthy person and under 90% is considered low. They are often used in hospitals to monitor people with breathing or cardiovascular difficulties, including people admitted to hospital with COVID-19, where low blood oxygen saturation is a worrying and even fatal complication of the disease for many with severe symptoms.

Doctors know mask-wearing has no effect on blood oxygen levels. But Dr. Lewis took the experiment one step further by measuring his oxygen saturation while wearing an entire box of surgical masks. The masks are from his personal supply and he plans to use them all so none were wasted for the experiment.

“I had been wearing a mask in clinic all day and someone on Twitter requested I measure my oxygen level after eight hours of use,” he said. “I put it on and, of course, there was no change in my oxygen saturation. Then I thought: how many masks would it take to drop my sat level? And before I knew it, I was wearing the entire box (probably about 30),” he added.

Despite wearing not just one mask, but an entire box, Dr. Lewis’ oxygen saturation remained high and well within the normal range.

“We’ve been using face coverings of one sort or another for years and years to avoid transmitting infection as healthcare workers,” said Dr. Lewis.

Surgeons have also been repeatedly pointing out that despite hours of wearing masks, they are able to complete complex surgical procedures, which would likely be difficult to accomplish if they were hypoxic, not getting enough oxygen, or suffering from hypercarbia - too much carbon dioxide.

The Utah Hospital Association, in collaboration with Utah’s four largest healthcare systems, are joining together in a collaborative effort to encourage the use of face masks in public and work settings throughout the state during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The initiative, #MaskUpUtah, will continue throughout the summer months in an effort to help reduce community transmission of the virus and will be featured on several platforms in Spanish and English including social media, digital, print, radio and billboards. The campaign will remind viewers that wearing a mask is a visible way to demonstrate concern and protection for others.

Clinical leaders from Intermountain Healthcare, MountainStar Healthcare, Steward Healthcare, and University of Utah Health, are concerned about the rising number of COVID-19 cases occurring throughout Utah. They have come together with one voice to remind Utahns that wearing a mask can make a significant difference in helping to reduce transmission of the virus.

Utah’s hospitals currently have capacity to keep up with the needs of the communities they serve. However, as the number of coronavirus cases grow, it is imperative that Utahns work together to keep the case counts at a manageable level so all patient needs – COVID-19 and non-COVID-19 – can continue to be met.

The dramatic rise in case counts Utah is currently experiencing will hit hospitals approximately seven to 10 days later. Current trends show a doubling in hospitalizations each week if the transmission rate is not reduced.

Wearing a mask is one way all Utahns can help reduce transmission and keep these vital resources available to meet the healthcare needs for everyone across the state.

While accurate information about COVID-19 continues to be clinically reviewed and verified, there are several facts clinicians agree on:

– Many people who are actively spreading COVID-19 may have very mild or no symptoms. Because they feel well, they continue to engage with their communities and family and do not realize that they need to self-isolate. Wearing a mask while at work and in public settings will help curb community spread from individuals with minimal or no symptoms.

– A lot of misinformation has been spreading recently about facial masking. However, clinicians agree that face coverings, when worn appropriately, block most infectious droplets originating from the individual wearing the face covering. Thus, blocking transmission into the community.

To what level a face covering protects the individual from infectious droplets is dependent on the type of face covering the material is made from (e.g., surgical mask, cloth face covering). N95 masks used in medical and industrial settings provide the highest level of protection and are reserved for the healthcare setting.

– Frequent washing of hands, keeping a distance of six feet from others and wearing a mask are basic hygiene steps that should continue to be done to stop the spread of COVID-19. While not trendy, these steps continue to be effective.

Tap here or the latest information and resources about COVID-19 from Intermountain Healthcare.