Updated on July 27, 2021
As of July 27, 2021, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends the use of masks for all teachers, staff, students, and visitors to K–12 schools regardless of whether they have been vaccinated to help mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. The CDC also has new guidance for fully vaccinated people, especially for those in high transmission areas. The CDC continues to recommend the use of masks by all individuals in health care settings. Local rules and regulations may require all individuals to use masks in certain situations. Businesses and workplaces, including private practices, can set their own policies. Use of masks is especially important 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.
The CDC identifies three types of face masks [PDF] that meet the standard of medical grade personal protective equipment (PPE):
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.
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:
In the school setting, service delivery options may include virtual-only interactions, hybrid (virtual and in-person) services, staggered/rotated scheduling, or fully in-person sessions. State, local school district, and CDC considerations for schools should be followed. 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.
Although all in-person services provided by audiologists and SLPs carry risk of COVID-19 transmission, not all procedures need the same type of precautions or PPE, according to the CDC.
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's 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.
For detailed information, see ASHA Guidance to SLPs Regarding Aerosol Generating Procedures.
Surgical masks are acceptable 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.
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 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. 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
Although critical to infection control, masks may negatively affect audiology and speech- language pathology services.
As a clinician, use your 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:
For non-AGPs provided to clients/students who do not have COVID-19, modifications to service delivery may include (but are not limited to) the following:
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.
Goldin, A., Weinstein, B. E., & Shiman, N. (2020). How do medical masks degrade speech perception? Hearing Review, 27(5), 8–9.