How Austin health care workers recommend you wear masks for the most protection

Coronavirus

Photos of Austin-area health care workers wearing their masks. Donna Beecroft, Chief Nursing Officer, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (top center), Dr. John Loyd, Division Chief of Neonatology, Dell Children’s Medical Center (far left), Dr. Meena Iyer, Chief
Medical Officer, Dell Children’s Medical Center (middle center), Dr.
Nicholas Steinour, ED Director, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin (far right), Dr. Rob Watson, Chief Medical Officer for Baylor Scott & White Austin and Hill Country regions (bottom center). (Photos provided by respective hospital systems).

AUSTIN (KXAN) — Though a growing number of people have been fully vaccinated against COVID-19 in Austin-Travis County (nearly 12% of Travis County, according to the latest state data), the pandemic is far from over, with new cases continuing to be reported locally and new individuals admitted to the hospital with COVID-19 each day.

KXAN spoke with nine Austin-area health care workers about what type of masks they wear and what they advise their patients to do when it comes to face coverings.

All these health care workers said they wear masks at work and outside of work and advise their patients to do the same.

While some of these workers who are vaccinated have relaxed wearing masks when at small gatherings of unvaccinated individuals, in most other instances, they overwhelmingly recommended keeping masks on when interacting with those outside your household.

“I remind my patients to wear a mask, wash your hands often and physically distance, even after receiving the vaccine,” said Dr. Rob Watson, Chief Medical Officer with Baylor Scott & White Austin and Hill Country regions. “We cannot let up on the evidence-based practices that have helped keep Texans safe over the last year.”

“We have done it for a year, and it’s not time to let our guard down yet,” said Dr. Nicholas Steinour, ED Director of Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin.

The doctors and public health experts KXAN spoke with also emphasized the importance of making sure your mask fits well, snugly covering your nose and mouth.

Mask rules and recommendations

In many settings, masks are still encouraged or required.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control recommends people wear masks at public settings, events and gatherings and anywhere they will be around other people. As of Feb. 2, masks are required on planes, buses, trains and other forms of public transportation.

Though Gov. Greg Abbott lifted the Texas mask mandate on March 10, Austin and Travis County leaders have continued to urge the public to wear masks.

In fact, Austin and Travis County have implemented orders requiring local businesses to require employees and customers to wear masks, and despite opposition from the state to strike down those local orders, they have remained in effect.

What health care workers are saying

Here is how Austin-area health care workers answered our questions about how they wear masks (answers in bold):

Dr. Meena Iyer, Chief Medical Officer at Dell Children’s Medical Center

Dr. Meena Iyer, Chief Medical Officer, Dell Children’s Medical Center. Photo Courtesy Ascension Seton.
  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes
    • When you go to the gym? Yes
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? They should always wear a mask unless they are vaccinated and meeting a small group of individuals who are also vaccinated.  
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? Since I am a health care worker, I am used to wearing a surgical mask and am comfortable with that. That is my personal choice.  
  • Do you double mask or recommend double masking? I don’t double mask and don’t recommend it if the single mask is well fitted. If you wear a mask with an exhalation valve, you will need a surgical mask to cover the valve. 
  • Anything else you want to share about mask-wearing? Wear a mask that fits well and covers both the nose and mouth. Don’t wear soiled masks.  

Dr. Mark Escott, Austin-Travis County Interim Health Authority

N95 mask (KXAN Photo)
N95 mask (KXAN Photo)
  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes
    • When you go to the gym? Home gym…if I did go to a gym YES
    • When you are in a gathering of people? YES, unless all vaccinated or unvaccinated and are low risk and not symptomatic
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? Wear a mask when they are outside their home, stressing the importance in public places and indoors.
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? Cloth for normal use, N-95 for patient care
  • Do you double mask or recommend double masking? I do not double mask. I would double mask or N-95 if I am going to be in close proximity to other individuals in a confined space for an extended duration of time, such as airline travel.
  • Anything else you want to share about mask-wearing? There is now strong evidence of the efficacy of mask-wearing with many studies indicating a decrease in transmission by 70% or more. This is particularly important for those individuals who are at high risk for exposure. It will remain important for young people probably through summer as this group will be the last to be vaccinated. Israel has experienced a surge in young people despite 60% of the adult population being vaccinated. This means that places where young people congregate such as gyms, bars and schools will remain a high-risk area.

Stephanie Hayden-Howard, Austin Public Health Director

  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes
    • When you go to the gym? Yes
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? Same for me – Cloth for normal use, N-95 for patient care.

Dr. Nicholas Steinour, ED Director, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin

Dr. Nicholas Steinour, ED Director, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin. (Photo Courtesy Ascension Seton).
  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Always
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? I don’t go.
    • When you go to the gym? I workout outside
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes, unless everyone is vaccinated AND outside
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? If you are indoors and around others, wear a mask. You don’t know the underlying health conditions or vaccination status of others – protect them and yourself by wearing a mask.
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? I wear a standard surgical mask; you need one that fits snugly over the face including the nose.
  • Do you double mask or recommend double masking? The community will be well served if everyone wears a mask. A second mask is a bonus and the added benefit is simply that it is more likely to fit more snugly.
  • Anything else you want to share about mask-wearing? We have done it for a year, and it’s not time to let our guard down yet.

Dr. Aliza Norwood, Assistant Professor of Population Health, Dell Medical School, UT Austin

  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes (I am in a clinical space, and we require masking for all staff and patients at this time)
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes
    • When you go to the gym? Yes
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes if there are multiple unvaccinated people from different households there.
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? Masks should still be worn when in public spaces, especially indoors, until we have a large majority of our population vaccinated. Right now we have a low percentage of our population in Texas and in Austin vaccinated so we need to all wear masks to reduce the spread of disease. As more people become vaccinated, we will all have more flexibility to be unvaccinated in public. Vaccinated people can be unmasked around each other in private indoor spaces and can visit unvaccinated people from the same household in small private gatherings.

Donna Beecroft, Chief Nursing Officer, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin

Donna Beecroft, Chief Nursing Officer, Ascension Seton Medical Center Austin. Photo Courtesy Ascension Seton.
  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes, when not eating
    • When you go to the gym? Yes
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes, unless it is my immediate family that I currently live with
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? To continue following all CDC guidance, including wearing a mask that covers their nose and mouth, as well as social distancing and following public health guidelines which are based on the current level of community spread. 
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? I follow CDC guidance to select a mask. In patient care areas I wear a medical mask. In other areas I wear a clean cloth mask or disposable mask. 
  • Do you double mask or recommend double masking?  I do not personally double mask, but I do ensure that my mask has multiple layers, fits snugly against my face and fully covers my nose and mouth. In addition, I do not select a mask with a valve or vent. 
  • Anything else you want to share about mask-wearing? I hope and pray that our community will continue to adhere to wearing a mask in public and social distancing. Our health care teams need the public to continue these safety practices. I’m encouraged to see the number of community members who have taken the vaccine as many of our health care team members have. I encourage anyone to reach out to their health care provider if they have any questions regarding the vaccine. 

Dr. John Loyd, Division Chief of Neonatology, Dell Children’s Medical Center

Dr. John Loyd, Division Chief of Neonatology, Dell Children’s Medical Center. Photo Courtesy Ascension Seton.
  • Will you personally wear a mask:
    • When you are working? Yes
    • When you go to grocery stores? Yes
    • When you go to retail stores? Yes
    • When you go to restaurants/bars? Yes
    • When you go to the gym? Yes
    • When you are in a gathering of people? Yes
  • How are you advising your patients/the public about when they should wear masks? I would advise patients to wear a mask. 
  • What type of mask do you prefer to wear? I typically wear a hospital-grade procedure mask.
  • Do you double mask or recommend double masking? I do not double mask.
  • Anything else you want to share about mask-wearing? While we have made a lot of progress in our battle with COVID recently, we are not out of the woods yet. We need to take a deep breath and press on and press in until we can see more widespread vaccination and greatly reduced rates of infection before getting back to “business as usual.”

Dr. Rob Watson, Chief Medical Officer, Baylor Scott & White Austin and Hill Country regions

Dr. Rob Watson, Chief Medical Officer for Baylor Scott & White Austin and Hill Country regions. Photo Courtesy Baylor Scott & White.

“It is important to remain vigilant as we work to vaccinate the public. It is too early to let our guard down against the virus. I remind my patients to wear a mask, wash your hands often, and physically distance, even after receiving the vaccine. We cannot let up on the evidence-based practices that have helped keep Texans safe over the last year. We must continue to protect ourselves and those who are most vulnerable. At Baylor Scott & White, we remain focused on protecting our staff, patients, and communities. We will continue to follow current safety protocols, including masking, social distancing, and COVID-19 screenings. I will continue to wear a mask at work and in the community. I know it can be frustrating, but these are evidence-based practices that are proven and important to stop the spread within our community. We want to keep you safe and healthy. When it comes to masks, it’s important to make sure the mask covers your mouth and nose, and doesn’t have gaps around your face.”

Dr. Kristin Mondy, Chief of Division of Infectious Disease Dell Medical School, UT Austin

Stethoscope and mask (Getty Images)
Stethoscope and mask (Getty Images)

“I feel like nothing has really changed for me and mask-wearing other than the fact that I do have older friends that are now vaccinated, and I have been getting together with them more at my house (small gatherings), and we do not wear masks at that time. This is in line with CDC guidelines, and I would recommend this change to my friends also.”

Since I am vaccinated I am also starting to dine indoors at some restaurants. 

Otherwise, I still wear a mask out at other stores/public places and at work as there is not enough data known yet about the ability of vaccinated people to effectively transmit the virus to non-vaccinated persons

At some point in the near future, I could see groups of vaccinated health care workers meeting without masks at a work setting, but for now, my understanding is that there are still a lot of health care workers who are not vaccinated (mainly by their own choice) and so I still wear a mask in the hospital and at my outpatient clinic at all times. Mask mandates at such facilities have generally not changed.

I generally wear a surgical mask because I have a small face and it fits better. Also, I get busy and don’t want to take the time to wash a cloth mask- disposable is easier for me. I think it’s advisable to double-mask if you are not vaccinated, especially if you fall into a high-risk group for severe Covid and you are around others that are not wearing a mask.

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