The What, Why, and How of Face Masks – COVID-19 Edition

SARS-CoV-2 or COVID-19, as it is commonly known, has affected 65.2 million people and has caused 1.51 million deaths worldwide so far [1] (as of December 4, 2020).

On the one hand, the quick spread of the virus and the lack of preventive vaccine or cure have scared people. On the other hand, the lack of information about the novel coronavirus has also created a lot of confusion over the past year. Even though we have come a long way from early 2020, when the world’s leading medical experts and public health organizations believed that wearing a face mask wasn’t necessary for everyone, there’s still a lot of confusion about face masks. The shifting guidelines also paved the way for many myths and misconceptions.

Do face masks really work? How can face masks help limit the spread of coronavirus? What type of face mask should you use? Are they all the same, or do their effectiveness varies? There are plenty of such questions lurking around about the utility of face masks. Knowing that incomplete information, confusion, and misconceptions can put people in danger, we have decided to answer all the questions about face masks and their usage with reference to COVID-19. Let’s get to it without further ado!

What Caused The WHO and CDC To Change Their Guidelines On The Use Of Face Masks?

Before we dig into the utility of face masks and how they work, it’s important to discuss the occurrence that stirred up all this confusion. Both healthcare and socio-political experts have identified several reasons why the WHO and CDC initially advised people against wearing face masks. Since the disease was caused by a new strain of the virus, there was a shortage of authentic information. Healthcare experts didn’t have a clear idea about the strength of the novel virus. There was also insufficient testing and a lack of information regarding the transmission of the virus in the earlier days of the pandemic. All these factors combined gave a false sense of security and made experts believe that wearing face masks wasn’t necessary for the public. Most experts agree that the lack of information about the novel coronavirus was the primary reason behind the initial guidelines issued by the world’s leading public health organizations. However, some hold the unpopular opinion that the CDC discouraged the public from wearing face masks because of the limited supply of N95 respirators and surgical masks. Telling everyone to wear masks at that time would have made their provision difficult to the health workers.

What caused such a drastic shift in these organizations’ guidelines, then?

Large-scale outbreaks and the discovery of more information regarding the transmission of the virus!

Over time, research findings and evidence (both empirical and anecdotal) made it known that the symptoms of COVID-19 can take several days to appear, and patients can even remain asymptomatic throughout. But, that doesn’t stop the disease transmission. The viral load can be highest before the symptoms begin to appear. These groundbreaking discoveries convinced the WHO and CDC that the only way to curtail this deadly virus is to be precautious. Hence, the major shift in their guidelines regarding face masks.

How Can a Face Mask Limit the Spread of COVID-19?

According to the latest research, face masks offer two-way protection. Since the novel coronavirus transmits through respiratory droplets, wearing a mask can prevent its spread in the environment from those who’re affected. Along with that, it also helps keep the unaffected ones safe by preventing the droplets (if somehow they escape in the environment) from coming into contact with their mouth or nose.

Do All Types of Face Masks Offer the Same Protection Against COVID-19?

Technically, no. Not all face masks are equally efficient in blocking out the respiratory droplets. Hence, their effectiveness against COVID-19 varies. N95 respirators offer maximum protection. However, as per the latest research, an N95 respirator is only needed in medical situations where you’re performing some procedure on a COVID-19 patient. Surgical masks come second in terms of the level of protection, followed closely by fabric masks.

Fabric masks may rank the lowest in terms of effectiveness. However, most healthcare experts believe that they offer enough protection to reduce the risk of coronavirus transmission. Even though CDC also recommends using cloth masks, it also states that their effectiveness is likely to vary with the type and quality of the fabric used, the design and fit of the mask, and the number of layers it has. How much these factors contribute to determining the effectiveness of a cloth mask? How can we maximize this effectiveness? Nothing can be said for sure yet because CDC is still studying these factors.[2]But, most healthcare experts agree that single-layered cloth face masks aren’t effective at all. As per the available information, a ripple-layered mask offers the maximum protection against COVID-19.

The only type of face mask healthcare experts are against using is the N95 mask with valve. The reason is that they only offer protection to the wearers but don’t protect those around them. These masks are essentially meant to be used by construction workers to prevent inhaling dust and any other potentially harmful substances. Hence, they only filter the inhaled air. The valve on the mask closes when you inhale to prevent any harmful particles from going inside but remains open when you exhale. This means you would still be transferring unfiltered air and respiratory droplets into the environment even if you are wearing an N95 mask with a valve.

The Sum Up

Although scientists all over the world have been researching SARS-CoV-2 for over a year now, our information about the virus is still limited. This, when coupled with the absence of a preventive vaccine or cure, leaves us with only one way to limit the spread of the virus – to exercise precautions and follow the Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) recommended by healthcare experts. Wash and sanitize your hands frequently, practice social distancing, and wear face masks – everyone knows it all by now. But, there are still many people who do not follow the SOPs properly and put them and others at risk. Don’t take the situation lightly; over 1.5 million people have lost their lives to this virus. Be a responsible citizen and follow the SOPs for your own as well as others’ wellbeing.

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