• The CDC recently revised its coronavirus guidelines to recommend against the use of face masks with valves, including many types of popular KN95 and N95 face masks.
  • While there is certainly logic behind the recommendation, the CDC offers no data to support its new stance on masks with exhalation valves.
  • The lack of supporting data isn’t why you should disregard the Commission’s new recommendation, but there are two main reasons why this particular guidance from the CDC should be ignored.

As new coronavirus case numbers continue to soar across the United States, the rate of new deaths is increasing in 21 states around the country. There have now been more than 5.2 million cases of COVID-19 recorded in the US alone, and more than 165,000 people have died of complications associated with the disease. Remember when people — including the president of the United States — repeatedly insisted that this new coronavirus wasn’t a serious problem? Remember when Trump and others said more people die of the flu? Well, the CDC estimates that around 34,200 people died of the flu in the US during the 2018-2019 flu season. Nearly twice that many Americans died of COVID-19… in the month of April alone.

Anti-maskers and coronavirus deniers are a huge part of the problem. The more extreme cases are people who actually think that COVID-19 is a hoax, like the Texas man who called it a “scamdemic” and said that “the mainstream media and the Democrats were using [the COVID-19 hoax] to create panic, crash the economy and destroy Trump’s chances at re-election.” He later contracted COVID-19, spread the disease to his entire family, and caused the death of at least one of his relatives. Less extreme cases aren’t necessarily as unhinged, but they still believe the virus is being blown out of proportion and they refuse to wear face masks as a result. Masks are crucial to slowing the spread of the novel coronavirus and to keeping local healthcare systems from being overwhelmed. For many people, however, face masks aren’t just about slowing the spread of the virus, they’re also about preventing oneself and one’s family from being infected.

The CDC recommends that we wear face masks anytime we leave our homes. Everyone knows that, but the reasoning behind the CDC’s recommendation might not be what you think. Basic cloth face coverings or those simple blue and white face masks you see everyone wearing aren’t about protecting you. Instead, they help prevent you from spreading COVID-19 in the event that you’re already infected. Remember, people can be presymptomatic and spread the disease for as long as 14 days before they begin to get observably sick. On top of that, many people who catch COVID-19 never experience any symptoms at all, but they can still spread the novel coronavirus and infect others.

It has been proven time and time again that the novel coronavirus spreads mainly from person to person through the air. When an infected person coughs, sneezes, yells, or even just speaks normally, he or she spreads the virus in microdroplets ejected from the mouth. Those droplets can travel short distances through the air, or the moisture can evaporate and leave viral aerosols that float much farther and linger for hours. When you wear a face mask, on the other hand, most of those droplets are caught before they reach the air in front of you.

Here’s the problem: face masks are not 100% effective. On top of that, not everyone wears a face mask. That means if you want to protect yourself from breathing in droplets or aerosols that might contain the novel coronavirus, you need something that filters much more effectively than a reusable cloth face covering or a 50¢ mask. This is where things like N95 masks, KN95 masks, and other types of professional-grade face masks come in.

When you wear an N95 face mask, two types of protection are at play. First, you’re protecting people nearby in the event that you’ve already contracted COVID-19. And second, you’re protecting yourself from inhaling any virus that might be in the air around you. Many people out there need this added protection because they fall into a high-risk category. Other people want added protection because it decreases their chances of catching COVID-19 and makes them feel safer. But there’s one big problem with N95 masks, high-quality KN95 masks, and other types of comparable respirators: They’re still very difficult to find.

That brings us to the CDC’s revised recommendation that we told you about earlier this week. Here’s the new message posted on the CDC’s COVID-19 site:

The purpose of masks is to keep respiratory droplets from reaching others to aid with source control. Masks with one-way valves or vents allow exhaled air to be expelled out through holes in the material. This can allow exhaled respiratory droplets to reach others and potentially spread the COVID-19 virus. Therefore, CDC does not recommend using masks or if they have an exhalation valve or vent.

Here’s the problem: because we have absolutely no leadership at the federal level, personal protective equipment is still in extremely short supply. We’re seven months into this pandemic and it’s still very difficult to find authentic, high-quality N95 and KN95 face masks. It’s mind-boggling and shameful, but this is the world we live in.

The small amount of N95 supply you can find out there for the general public to buy is often masks with valves. Head over to our Deals channel right now, for example, and you’ll find 3M N95 and 3M N100 face masks available for purchase on Amazon. But they all have valves. The CDC says not to use masks like these, but they’re your only option if you want to protect yourself rather than just the people around you.

What should you do? Should you have to suffer and use less effective protective equipment because the White House can’t get its act together? No, you shouldn’t. You should buy get yourself the best possible protection you can find, even if that means using masks with valves.

No, we’re not telling you to disregard the safety of the people around you. There are two reasons why you should disregard this particular guidance from the CDC, and you can do so without putting nearby people at risk.

First, exhalation valves can be covered in any number of different ways. The easiest options are to put one of those basic 3-layer face masks on over your N95 mask, or to put nonporous tape over the valve. With either solution, the people around you will no longer have to worry about unfiltered air escaping through the valve on your face mask. If you do have COVID-19, nearby people will actually be even safer than they would’ve been if you wore a regular cloth face mask. In the same way N95 masks filter inhaled air better than basic masks, they filter exhaled air far more effectively as well.

Second, nurses and doctors in hospitals don’t typically use face masks with valves. If you buy valveless N95 masks, you’re taking crucial supplies away from the frontline workers who are in desperate need. If you buy N95 face masks with valves, on the other hand, it’s much less of an issue.

All of the CDC’s COVID-19 guidelines are there to help keep us safe. That includes the Commission’s latest guidance against wearing face masks with exhalation valves. But what the CDC failed to communicate is the fact that face masks with valves can be worn responsibly. All it takes is another light-duty mask worn in tandem with the N95, or even just a little piece of tape. The people around you will be just as safe as they would have been if you wore a regular cloth mask, but you’ll be far better protected against catching COVID-19.

Zach Epstein has worked in and around ICT for more than 15 years, first in marketing and business development with two private telcos, then as a writer and editor covering business news, consumer electronics and telecommunications. Zach’s work has been quoted by countless top news publications in the US and around the world. He was also recently named one of the world's top-10 “power mobile influencers” by Forbes, as well as one of Inc. Magazine's top-30 Internet of Things experts.