The 21st Show

Ask The Newsroom: Confusion Over Masks And Coronavirus Protection


Nati Harnik/AP

This week, The 21st show is answering listener questions about the coronavirus.

We received a question at from Kimberly, who wants to know why the general public is being told to not to use face masks while at the same time, we’re hearing health care workers need them:

"Why is it that the masks work for a person if they're a doctor or a nurse but not for the people in the general public? I don't understand the logic of these statements because if it prevents doctors and nurses from contracting any germs or viruses, then why wouldn't it offer any protection at all to me or all other people who are not doctors?”

The 21st show reached out to Michael Eisen, professor of Infectious Diseases at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine.

Eisen says N95 masks are specially designed to protect health care workers from aerosols carrying viruses, which they may be exposed to when caring for a sick patient. 

“It's this reason that it's helpful for helping to protect health care workers and likely of little benefit to the public wearing them without significant close contact with known patients with COVID-19,” he says.

N95 masks for health workers are different from surgical masks that loop around the ear, which the CDC says should be worn by people with suspected COVID-19 until they’re isolated in a hospital or at home.

“The role of facemasks is for patient source control, to prevent contamination of the surrounding area when a person coughs or sneezes,” the CDC says on its website.

According to the CDC, N95 masks, when fitted and worn properly, “reduce the wearer’s exposure to airborne particles, from small particle aerosols to large droplets.”

Photo Credit:

The concern is that when the general public buys up N95 masks intended for health care workers, the shortage of personal protective equipment for doctors and nurses will worsen. 

Public health officials also worry that when people wear regular surgical masks when they’re not sick, they may develop a false sense of security.

Surgical masks “do not provide complete protection from germs and other contaminants because of the loose fit between the surface of the face mask and your face,” according to the FDA.

Submit your questions about the coronavirus at

Follow Christine on Twitter: @CTHerman

Story source: