Americans are increasingly seen in public with face masks during the coronavirus pandemic, as are people around the world.
Soon, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) may advise all Americans to cover their faces when they leave the house, the Washington Post reported.
The agency weighs that recommendation after initially telling the Americans that they didn’t need to wear masks and that anything other than a high-quality medical N95 mask would do little to prevent infection in any way.
FACE MASKS HELP PREVENT INFECTION – BUT THEY ARE NOT EQUAL
Investigate how well different types of masks and facial covers vary, but recently and in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, experts are increasingly tending to believe that something is better than nothing.
A study from the University of Oxford, published March 30, concluded that surgical masks are just as effective at preventing respiratory infections as N95 masks for doctors, nurses and other health professionals.
It’s too early for reliable data on how well they prevent infection with COVID-19, but the study found that the thinner, cheaper masks work in flu outbreaks.
The difference between surgical or face masks and N95 masks is in the size of particles that – and more importantly – cannot get through the materials.
N95 respirators are made of thick, tightly woven and shaped material that fits tightly over the face and can trap 95 percent of all airborne particles, while surgical masks are thinner, looser and more porous.
This makes surgical masks much more comfortable to inhale and act on, but less effective in preventing small particles from entering your mouth and nose.
Drops of cough and sneezing saliva and mucus are very small, and viral particles themselves are particularly small – in fact, they are about 20 times smaller than bacteria.
For this reason, a JAMA study published this month still claimed that people without symptoms should not wear surgical masks, as there is no evidence that the equipment will protect them from infection – although they can prevent people who cough and sneeze infect others.
But the Oxford analysis of previous studies – which has not yet been peer-reviewed – found that surgical masks were worth wearing and statistically offered no less protection than N95 for health professionals around influenza patients.
However, any face mask is only as good as other health and hygiene practices. Experts generally agree that there is no substitute for thorough and regular hand washing to prevent disease transmission.
Some think the masks can also help to “train” people not to touch their faces, while others argue that the unfamiliar garment will actually make people more likely to do so, increasing infection risks.
If the CDC instructs Americans to wear masks, it could pose a second problem: hospitals are already facing a shortage of masks and other personal protective equipment.
WHAT TO USE TO COVER YOUR FACE IF YOU DO NOT HAVE A MASK
The agency can therefore recommend that ordinary citizens use alternatives such as cloth masks or bandanas.
“Homemade masks could theoretically provide some protection if materials and fit were optimized, but this is uncertain,” said Dr. Jeffrey Duchin, a health officer from Seattle, at the Washington Post.
A 2013 study found that a vacuum cleaner bag next to a surgical mask was the best material for a homemade mask.
After a vacuum bag, kitchen towels were fairly protective, but uncomfortable. Masks made from T-shirts were very tolerable, but only worked a third and surgical mask. Cambridge University researchers concluded that homemade masks should only be used ‘as a last resort’.
But as the pandemic has spread to more than 164,000 people worldwide, it may be time to consider the last resort options.