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Using Masks for In-Person Service Delivery During COVID-19: What to Consider

In addition to screening for symptoms and disinfecting surfaces, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also recommends the use of masks and cloth face coverings for most people to help mitigate the transmission of COVID-19, especially when it isn’t possible to follow physical distancing standards.  

Audiologists and speech-language pathologists (SLPs) can use the following information to help make decisions about masks when providing in-person service delivery, in addition to the most current guidance from the CDC and local health officials. We’ll continue to update this page as we learn more about the spread of COVID-19. 

Types of Masks 

The CDC identifies  three types of face masks [PDF] that meet the standard of medical grade personal protective equipment (PPE):  

  • Surgical mask 
  • N95 respirator
  • Elastomeric half facepiece respirator 

Although cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19 are acceptable for general use by the public, the CDC specifically states that they are not categorized as medical PPE. The correct mask type varies based on the type of service you’re providing.  

The CDC has also outlined  specific guidance for putting on (donning) and taking off (doffing) PPE

What to Consider When Using Masks as a Provider  

Consider Telepractice First 

When possible and appropriate, telepractice is strongly encouraged for audiology and speech language pathology services to mitigate COVID-19 transmission risk. You may use telepractice as the sole model of service delivery or complementary to in-person services. For example:  

  • Although the SLP could do instrumental assessment of swallowing in person, they could provide the dysphagia intervention via telepractice.  
  • Although the audiologist needs to do cochlear implant candidacy evaluation and initial activation in person, they could provide follow-up programming via telepractice. 

In the school setting, service delivery may range from virtual-only interactions, to hybrid virtual and in-person structures, to staggered/rotated scheduling, to fully in-person sessions. Along with state, district, and CDC considerations for schools, school-based audiologists and SLPs should evaluate their own risk and that of the students they serve when making decisions about service delivery. 

Across settings, providers may also use  group telepractice sessions along with in-person, one-on-one services—following federal, state, district, facility, and state licensure regulations and guidance. For more information and resources on telepractice, visit  ASHA’s COVID-19 telepractice page

Choosing the Right Mask for the Service You’re Providing 

Although all in-person services provided by audiologists and SLPs carry risk of COVID-19 transmission, not all procedures need the same amount of precautions or PPE, according to the CDC.   

When to Use an N95 or Higher-Level Respirator 

N95 masks are recommended for  aerosol-generating procedures (AGPs), which  the CDC defines as medical procedures that are “more likely to generate higher concentrations of infectious respiratory aerosols than coughing, sneezing, talking, or breathing” and result in “uncontrolled respiratory secretions.” Higher-level respirators, like elastomeric half facepiece respirators, are also suitable, depending on your employer guidelines. 

AGPs should not be completed without the proper PPE, according to CDC guidelines. Providers should also wear N95 masks when providing services that require close physical proximity to the patient/client.  

Examples of AGP Procedures in Speech-Language Pathology

  • Dysphagia care (instrumental and non-instrumental assessment and treatment) 
  • Instrumental assessment of voice via endoscopy, with or without stroboscopy  
  • Assessment and management of  laryngectomy, including voice restoration using voice prosthesis and stoma care  
  • Assessment and treatment of  tracheostomies, with or without mechanical ventilation, including suctioning 
  • Non-invasive ventilation such as high-flow nasal oxygen and nasal cannulae  

For detailed information, see  ASHA Guidance to SLPs Regarding Aerosol Generating Procedures

Examples of Possible AGP and/or Close-Proximity Procedures in Audiology

  • Otoscopy 
  • Cerumen management 
  • Real-ear measurements 
  • Earmold impressions 
  • Dizziness and balance measurements 
  • Evoked potential testing 

When to Use a Surgical Mask 

Surgical masks are acceptable as PPE for other services provided by audiologists and SLPs that have lower transmission risks than AGPs. “FDA-cleared surgical masks are designed to protect against splashes and sprays and are prioritized for use when such exposures are anticipated” the CDC states.

Making Sure PPE Is Available for the Client/Student and Provider 

You (or your employer) will need to make sure you have adequate access to appropriate PPE (via a reliable pipeline) to meet ongoing practice needs and ensure your own safety as well as that of your clients/students. Needs may evolve, depending on the types of diagnoses you come across in your practice setting and the types of services you need to provide. Clinicians are also encouraged to ensure that alternate PPE is available for clients/students to use in case the client/student and/or caregiver does not have access to required PPE during the session.  

Cloth Face Coverings 

Cloth face coverings are not surgical masks, respirators, or other medical PPE. The CDC emphasizes that it’s critical to  teach and reinforce the use of cloth face coverings—as well as engaging in frequent hand-washing and not touching the face—for children and the public. Nonclinical staff and clients/students should wear cloth face coverings whenever possible, especially when physical distancing is difficult. You should also provide information on proper use, removal, and washing of cloth face coverings. 

It’s important to note that cloth face coverings should not be placed on 

  • children younger than 2 years old,
  • anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, or
  • anyone who is incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cloth face covering without assistance.

Cloth face coverings are meant to protect other people in case the wearer is unknowingly infected but does not have symptoms (studies suggest that COVID-19 can be spread by those who do not have any active symptoms and those who eventually develop symptoms).  

Determining Whether PPE Negatively Affects a Service 

Although critical to infection control, masks may negatively affect audiology and speech language pathology services. 

As a clinician, use your independent clinical judgment (in compliance with requirements established by employer and/or federal, state, and local oversight bodies) to determine whether mask use is the most appropriate protocol for service delivery—or if you can or should make modifications.

If you’re modifying recommended best practices, make sure you’ve documented informed consent from the client/student or caregiver.  

Here are some examples of how masks can negatively affect services:  

  • Increased difficulty in understanding speech: Masks attenuate sound by 3–12 dB and also result in low-pass filtering of high-frequency sounds, making it more difficult to understand speech and some higher-pitched voices (Goldin et al., 2020). Listening to masked speech can be especially hard for people with hearing loss. 
  • Reduced discrimination of speech signal among competing noise: For example, reduced discrimination may occur in the presence of traffic or noisy yard work like lawn mowing. 
  • Reduced intelligibility of the wearer’s speech: Listeners may perceive speech as muffled or lower in volume. 
  • Loss of visual cues: Masks remove the ability to speech read and see facial expressions, which augment communication.
  • Increased difficulty of verbal communication: Speaking and understanding language while wearing a mask can be hard for people with communication problems like aphasia, voice problems, and autism. 
  • Reduced ability to provide appropriate cues to the client/student: Masks can reduce one’s ability to provide communication cues—for example, in the case of speech sound production. 
  • Noncompliance of mask wearing: Masks can be uncomfortable for young and school-aged children, and for people who wear hearing aids or cochlear implants. Noncompliance with mask use can also be an issue for those with cognitive or sensory deficits. 

Options for Modification  

For low-risk, non-AGPs provided to clients/students who do not have COVID-19, modifications to mask use may include (but are not limited to) the following:

  • masks with clear panels
  • face shields 
  • plexiglass or other clear barriers  
  • physical distancing 
  • use of voice amplifiers 
  • use of family member/caregiver as model or extension of clinician’s hands 
  • use of videos or images for demonstration 

It’s  important to note that there is no documented clinical evidence on how these modifications impact effectiveness of overall infection control processes used in clinical practice.  

Taking Steps to Bolster Communication While Wearing Masks

  • Make sure you have the attention of your client/student before you start talking.  
  • Face them directly, and make sure nothing is blocking your view. 
  • Speak slowly and slightly louder, but don’t shout or exaggerate your speech. 
  • Optimize hearing—confirm that those who use hearing aids or cochlear implants are wearing their devices or use a portable amplifier. Use your eyes, hands, and body language to add information to your speech. 
  • Provide visual references (e.g., printouts, notes, images) to accompany communication. 
  • Ask if they understood you—if they didn’t, rephrase it or write it down. 
  • Ask them to repeat important information to see whether they understood what you said. 
  • Reduce competing noise in the environment, if possible.  
  • If you’re talking with someone new, ask the person what you can do to make communication easier for both of you. 

Additional Resources

From ASHA

From Other Organizations

Reference

Goldin, A., Weinstein, B. E., & Shiman, N. (2020). How do medical masks degrade speech perception? Hearing Review, 27(5), 8–9. 

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