Health experts say improper mask hygiene could put you at the mercy of COVID-19 and other viruses.

Improper hygiene isn't restricted to a select group of people, but rather many in the Grand Valley, said Andy Tyler, a regional epidemiologist with Mesa County Public Health. Because of that, it's important for everyone to be more conscious of how they treat their wardrobe's newest staple.

"We're seeing that people are most infectious about two days before they start showing symptoms," Tyler said. "Wearing a mask protects the community from spread, and taking proper care of it protects everyone."

The two most common examples of poor mask hygiene that Tyler sees are people touching their masks as they're wearing them and not taking them off properly.

Specifically, people often touch the front of the masks when wearing them and take them off by grabbing the front. That area should be considered dirty and the wearer should be washing their hands before and after touch their mask to reduce the risk of cross contamination.

Instead, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends that  people take masks off by grabbing the loops or strings that go around the ears

Another common issue that many health experts advise against is storing putting your mask on any high touch surface, especially pockets.

"You should always treat your mask as if its contaminated," Tyler said. "Your hands are in your pockets a lot, and putting your mask in there exposes it to any germs on your hands."

Tyler store his in a drawer at his desk and recommends that people find a place that isn't commonly touched, or even a bag, to store their mask when it's not being worn.

When someone is done wearing their mask, it's important they clean it on a regular basis. Ideally, they should be cleaned every day but there's some wiggle room, Tyler said. If someone wore their mask outside for 20 minutes, then they can probably get away with not washing it that night. But if they wore it for eight hours with few breaks, then it should be cleaned as soon as possible.

That's also the case if the mask is moist, no matter how long it was worn.

When fabric isn't properly washed, it can foster the growth of bacteria such as E. Coli and viruses such as COVID-19 and noroviruses, according to research from Ryan Sinclair, an assistant professor at Loma Linda University who holds a PhD in environmental microbiology.

Essentially, the longer you wear your mask or the more bacteria it is exposed to, the dirtier it becomes.

"You should treat your mask like your underwear," Tyler said.

The intricacies of mask hygiene create another fear for Tyler and his colleagues — COVID fatigue. Mesa County prides itself in its low case numbers and maintaining proper hygiene is vital to keeping that total down, he said.

That importance is amplified as temperatures continue to drop and people move outdoor events inside, which is where respiratory viral illnesses tend to thrive.

"We always have to be concerned about COVID fatigue and that's when people start to relax," Tyler said. "We can't allow that. Because the numbers will grow if that happens, especially in the winter."

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