Why Wear a Mask?
Since the COVID-19 pandemic swept the globe, there has been much debate and conflicting information regarding the use of masks for the general public and non-medical workers. In recent weeks, however, recommendations have been made for non-medical workers to begin wearing reusable cloth masks in public places.
How COVID-19 spreads
A critical turning point in the shift to recommending people wear cloth masks was a deepening in our understanding of how COVID-19 spreads. COVID-19 is known to spread in three ways: direct contact, fomites (objects that can carry infection), and droplets.
Wearing reusable cloth masks helps to reduce the spread of droplets. When people sneeze, cough, breathe or talk they expel droplets. When a non-infected person comes into contact with and internalizes infected droplets they are at risk of becoming infected as well.1 Additionally, due to the fact that COVID-19 has a 14 days to incubation period (the time between catching the infection and showing symptoms), people are frequently infected by individuals who appear to be healthy.2
Benefits of wearing a mask
Wearing a reusable mask has been proven to reduce the spread of droplets by 70-74% and thus reduces the spread of infection.3 The degree of filtration depends on the type of material used, the number of layers, and whether or not additional filtration was included (i.e. a coffee filter, baby wipe, ect.)
Given the noted two week incubation period where infected individuals are asymptomatic, wearing a mask in public is critical to protecting each other and ensuring we slow the spread of infection.
Protecting the Wearer
While it is generally accepted that wearing a mask protects others, recent studies have demonstrated that wearing a reusable mask can also protect from incoming particles; in other words a mask can also protect the wearer.
Similarly to filtration of outgoing particles, the type of material, number of layers and use of additional filtration has a significant impact on the effectiveness of a reusable mask. Studies have shown that thicker, tighter weaved material such as quilting material works best and is particularly effective when additional filtration is layered between the material.4
Alleviates pressure on demand for medical grade supplies
A key detail in every recommendation for non-medical workers to wear masks is that folks should not be wearing medical grade equipment unless they are a health care provider. With an increasing demand and dwindling supply of medical grade equipment, those who do not require medical grade equipment should leave N95 and surgical masks to our front liner heroes who need it most.
Reusable cloth masks are a reasonable and adequate way to protect against COVID-19 without taxing an already exhausted supply-chain that protects our medical workers.
Reduces waste and improper disposal of masks
We now know that COVID-19 particles can stay on a variety of surfaces for several hours or even days.5 As people increase their use of rubber gloves and disposable masks when out in public, an additional risk has been created: the improper disposal of protective wear. Failing to dispose of these items correctly puts community members, workers, and animals at risk of coming into contact with infected materials.6
If you do choose to use disposable masks and gloves ensure that these materials are disposed of properly.
Some Important Details
While wearing reusable masks certainly slows the spread of COVID-19 and can help protect both the wearer and others from infection, these masks are only beneficial when used correctly and when following existing social distancing and hygiene recommendations such as staying 2 meters apart from others and coughing or sneezing into your sleeve.
When wearing a reusable masks:
- Wash your hands before putting on your mask.
- Do not touch or adjust your mask once you are in public
- Make sure the mask covers both your mouth and nose.
- Wash your hands before and after removing your reusable mask
- Put your mask in the wash or a designated area immediately after removing it
1. Canada, Coronavirus disease (COVID-19): Prevention and Risks, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/prevention-risks.html#h
2. Canada, Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19): Symptoms and Treatment, 2020, https://www.canada.ca/en/public-health/services/diseases/2019-novel-coronavirus-infection/symptoms.html
3. Anna Davis, Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks; Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic, 2013, https://www.researchgate.net/figure/Filtration-Efficiency-and-Pressure-Drop-Across-Materials-Tested-with-Aerosols-of-Bacillus_tbl1_258525804
4. Tara Parker-Pope, New YorkT imes, “What is the Best Material for a Mask?”, 2020, https://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-homemade-mask-material-DIY-face-mask-ppe.html
5. Antonia Noori Farzan, Washington Post, “Masks and gloves are used to help stop the spread of coronavirus, They way they are being disposed of are putting people, animals at risk,” 2020, https://www.washingtonpost.com/nation/2020/04/09/discarded-gloves-masks-coronavirus/
6. Dawson White, Miami Herald, “Stop the littering: Here’s the correct way to dispose of masks and gloves, experts say,” 2020, https://www.miamiherald.com/news/coronavirus/article241826596.html