Face Covering Guidance

On February 11, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) updated its guidance on the use and selection of masks. This EH&S Mask Summary and associated FAQ explains how this information can be applied at Pitt. This summary will be updated as necessary and in accordance with guidance from the CDC and Pitt’s public health experts.

Note that Pennsylvania currently has a governor’s order requiring that masks be worn by anyone in public. In addition, University of Pittsburgh Health and Safety Standards and Guidelines require use of a mask while on any University of Pittsburgh campus, except under certain specific conditions.

While the characteristics of the selected mask are important, a continual focus on wearing a mask at all times on campus, wearing the mask properly, keeping six feet away from others, practicing hand hygiene and avoiding indoor gatherings, especially where masks are removed, is essential to effectively reduce transmission of the virus.  

Updated CDC Guidance

Pitt previously provided a 2-ply cloth mask (aka face covering) to University members. For most persons, these masks and similar masks meet the updated CDC guidelines.  Variability in face configurations and other human variables like health status necessitate selection of a mask that is appropriate for each individual. Learn how to improve the fit and filtration of your mask to reduce the spread of COVID-19.

The CDC’s updated guidance mentions double masking with certain types of masks, adding filtration to certain types of masks, or using a nose wire, a mask fitter or a mask brace to prevent leakage. While these are all options to enhance effectiveness of your mask, none of these practices or enhancements are required by CDC or the University. What is required is that you wear a mask. The best mask is one that is well-fitted (i.e. snug to your face with no gaps) and is sufficiently comfortable to wear all day.

Labs and Clinical Areas

Pitt EH&S has provided separate guidance for masks in laboratories and research areas. Separate mask guidance has also been provided for clinical research at Pitt. The updated CDC mask guidance does not change the existing guidance for research. Contact Pitt EH&S at safety@ehs.pitt.edu with any questions.

Why Masks Remain Important

Masks provide a physical barrier that help contain the spread of respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks. This is known as source control. Persons who are asymptomatic or have unrecognized, early COVID-19 symptoms are less likely to transmit the virus while wearing a mask. Applicable research clearly shows the use of masks has reduced transmission of COVID-19. A typical mask or face covering is not intended to fully protect the wearer, but it is widely believed that the wearer is offered some level of protection depending on the selected face covering and the associated fit. All of this leads to the fact that masks work best when everyone wears one.

Factors to Consider When Selecting a Mask

The most important factors to consider when selecting a face covering are fit and comfort. A properly fitted face covering should completely cover your mouth and nose, and remain in place, especially while talking.  The mask must be secured under your chin and fit snugly against the sides of your face and along your nose and cheeks. The mask should be sufficiently comfortable that you do not have to continuously adjust the mask as you go about your day. Fit is the most important criteria to consider since a mask will only work if worn consistently. It must be easy to wear, and breathable.

Masks with fabric layers generally filter more respiratory droplets than a single layer mask. The CDC recommends masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that fit comfortably on the face. Note that some varieties of neck gaiters do not meet the recommendation for two or more layers of fabric.

N95 masks, which are technically classified as respiratory protection, remain difficult to source. It is recommended that N95 masks remain reserved for use by health care workers and other workers needing protection from airborne pathogens.

KN95 masks are also mentioned in the updated CDC Guidance. Most KN95 masks are not equivalent to an N95 mask. Before issuing a KN95 mask as a form of worker protection or as a substitute for an N95 respirator, approval must be obtained from Pitt EH&S for the specific application and the specific KN95 mask.

Double Masking

The updated CDC guidance provides an option to wear a disposable mask underneath a cloth mask. Double masking may improve fit for certain masks, provided that there is improved fit by helping to secure the inner mask snug against the face.

Neither the CDC nor Pitt is requiring the use of a double mask.

Wearing two disposable masks or two medical procedure masks is not recommended, because this practice will not greatly improve fit.  Also, if wearing double masks creates difficulty in breathing, it is better to continue wearing a single mask. Do not wear any mask made of a material (such as vinyl or leather) that makes it difficult to breathe. If you choose to double mask, follow the CDC guidance for mask selection.

CDC and Pitt guidance continue to prohibit the use of any mask with an exhalation valve for source control of COVID-19.

Frequently Asked Questions

With the new variants of SARS-CoV-2 in circulation, should I get a better mask?

A well-fitting 2-ply cloth mask or a well-fitting 3-ply disposable mask are effective in preventing transmission of COVID-19, including transmission of the new variants.

Should I double mask?

The CDC is now suggesting that double masking is one way to increase filtration and improve the fit of your mask. Having a well-fitting mask is important. Double masking is not required if your mask is well-fitting. If you choose to double mask, be sure to wear the disposal mask under the cloth mask as outlined in CDC guidance. Do not use two masks at a time if it makes breathing difficult and excessively uncomfortable.

Can I get an N95 mask?

An N95 mask is actually a high-efficiency respirator that must fit tightly to work properly. To assure a proper fit for worker protection, the N95 mask must be fit-tested by a qualified person using an established method. An N95 mask is unnecessary for most work activity at the University. Most people find wearing an N95 respirator for extended periods to be very uncomfortable. N95 respirators are not abundant, and remain allocated to researchers and healthcare workers who absolutely need them.

In Summary
  • Two-ply cloth face coverings and 3-ply disposable masks are effective in preventing transmission of SARS-CoV-2, including transmission of the new variants, so long as they fit well. 
  • Workers or students who have additional questions about respiratory protection or masks should contact EH&S.