WESTFIELD, NJ — When Dr. Anand Swaminathan heard the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was urging all Americans to wear a mask when they leave home, he was not surprised.

Instead, the Westfield resident and assistant professor of emergency medicine at St. Joseph’s Regional Medical Center in Paterson was worried about the misunderstanding that would ensue from the public.  

“[The CDC’s] messaging has been a little bit confusing and scattered,” Swaminathan said. “It makes people anxious. It’s hard to know exactly what to believe and what to listen to.”

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Masks make a minimal contribution to limiting exposure to coronavirus, he explained. Their main benefit is preventing asymptomatic carriers from spreading the virus, as well as serving as a reminder to not touch the face.

 “It’s just something to put over the face to stop when you're coughing from particles going out and stopping people from touching their face,” Swaminathan said.

He also said that face coverings do not need to be N95 masks or respirators. Not only are the materials in short supply, but N95 masks are specially fitted and can be ineffective if not used properly, Swaminathan said.

“The N95 masks and surgical masks are not what people should be using,” he said. “A simple bandana is fine.”

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Swaminathan is also worried that the public’s clamor for N95 masks and other gear can cause a greater shortage of personal protective equipment, which is needed by healthcare workers.

MORE: COVID-19 Front Lines: Emergency Doc From Westfield Seeing Young People Affected by Virus

Typically, doctors and nurses use a mask per patient. But with the onslaught of COVID-19 cases, Swaminathan finds himself and his colleagues using a single mask per 12-hour shift.

 “[Healthcare workers] need to have the utmost protection, not just to stay healthy, but to keep working,” he said. “If I get sick then I can't go to work. That’s going to be a problem if we’re losing 20 to 30% of our healthcare workers, which some places are seeing.”

Masks and face coverings are best used at supermarkets or indoor areas where social distancing guidelines are harder to maintain. They are not as necessary in the park as long as people maintain a six-foot distance, but Swaminathan emphasized that masks do not give people license to congregate in large groups.

 “Social distancing is by far the most important thing,” he said. “The mask is secondary.”

People can donate personal protective equipment and help healthcare workers obtain more at https://getusppe.org/.

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