Welcome back to the second post in our special series on why everyone should be wearing face masks for coronavirus protection!
In our first article, we broke down the statistics of how many people are wearing face masks across the world. We also examined how COVID-19 spreads through airborne particles. Did you miss it? Check it out here!
For this second entry, we'll delve into how face masks stop coronavirus transmission. We'll also discuss why you shouldn't let your guard down, even though we've been in this pandemic for almost eight months now. Let's get started!
Why Face Masks Are Crucial to Stopping Coronavirus Transmission
Ben Cowling is the University of Hong Kong's head of epidemiology and biostatistics. He and his colleagues recently studied if face masks are effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus from infected people. Their conclusion? "Face masks could help to reduce transmission in the community, particularly if used in public transport and crowded areas," Cowling explains.
The research team found that even a standard surgical face mask considerably reduces the virus particles that escape from an infected person's coughs and breathing. This is a big deal, particularly for people who are constantly exposed to others in public settings such as the bus or train. These scenarios are notorious for being difficult to trace COVID-19 transmission in.
Speaking of difficulty with tracing, another reason why public face mask-wearing is so imperative is that COVID-19 asymptomatic carriers can still spread the virus to others. Currently, it's estimated that 6% to 18% of people can carry the coronavirus without developing any symptoms. Couple this with a broad incubation period of 5 to 14 days, and it's easy to see how an infected person could spread the virus far and wide before falling ill themselves.
Cowling thinks these factors make it particularly hard to suppress community transmission. But if everybody wears face masks, this could help tremendously with stymying the spread of COVID-19. The US National Institutes of Health (NIH) also found that even a damp homemade mask helps to reduce the number of emitted droplets when we speak.
What About Face Masks With Valves?
So, face masks clearly help stop infected people from passing the coronavirus on to others. But do they also protect uninfected people from breathing it in?
Specialized masks like the N95 respirator help filter out 95% of airborne particles and can block aerosols as small as 0.3 micrometers wide. But these benefits only apply to versions of this mask without an exhalation valve on the front. Valved N95 masks only protect the wearer — they don't prevent an infected person from breathing out virus particles. Several health authorities have even warned that valves can actually propel germs further. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) doesn't recommend using valved masks.
It's worth noting that even N95 masks have mixed performance. The coronavirus that causes COVID-19 can travel in particles 0.07 to 0.09 micrometers in size, so they could possibly slip through. But most respiratory viruses tend to be suspended in aerosol droplets between 0.1 to 900 micrometers in size, so N95 masks do excel at taking care of those.
As far as empirical evidence goes, an analysis of China health workers found that those who donned N95 respirators did not become infected with the coronavirus despite constant contact with contagious patients. This is one of the primary reasons why these masks must be reserved for healthcare workers.
If the general public consumes the already short supply of these masks, there will be none left for medical staff on the frontline of this pandemic. Thus, the World Health Organization has urged the general public not to wear N95 respirators. This rationale has also fueled the reluctance of governments all around the world to encourage the public to wear masks.
Don't Let Your Guard Down
While respirators seem like the ideal face mask protection during this troubling time, there are simpler, more accessible alternatives. For instance, a study found that a 3M surgical mask can block out 75% of particles as small as 0.02 micrometers. The University of Georgia also found that multi-layer neck gaiters reduced respiratory droplet transmission by 96%.
But we'd be remiss to suggest that wearing face mask protection is all you need to do to protect yourself from COVID-19. This assumption is actually a subtle yet vital concern of many health experts. They believe that face masks could introduce a false sense of security. A study from Yale University found that people in US states with mask mandates are spending 20 to 30 more minutes in commercial locations such as shops.
Don't let your guard down. Yes, you should wear face mask protection when out in public during the coronavirus pandemic. But you should also regularly wash your hands, sanitize frequently-touched surfaces, and practice social distancing with anyone who doesn't live in your home. Vigilance and due diligence are key to more of us surviving through this crisis.
Stay tuned for the third and final part of this series, where we'll take a look at the efficacy of homemade face masks and what would happen to infection rates if just 50% of the general population wore face masks in public.
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