By Submitted Article on April 14, 2020.
Jaynita Maru, BSc (Hons) and Austin A. Mardon, PhD
COVID-19 cases have been drastically increasing in North America, Europe and many other parts of the world. The number of cases in the U.S. have been at an all-time high with more than 277,000 as of the beginning of April.
The virus is airborne and highly infectious and can be spread through droplets via activities such as speaking, coughing or sneezing. New research is emerging that re-infection is a possibility with cases first seen in Japan.
Across the globe, there has been widespread panic concerning the coronavirus. Mass quarantine laws have been in effect in various countries. This was done mainly to “flatten the curve” to reduce the spike in number of cases so as not to overwhelm the medical system. Practices such as hand-washing and social distancing have been in play and are effective in reducing the spread of the virus.
However, one practice – wearing masks – has undergone a lot of scrutiny. On one hand, we do not have enough evidence to show that wearing a mask in public will significantly reduce our chances of contracting the virus. On the other hand, many argue that the lack of evidence does not mean masks are completely ineffective. Until now, the World Health Organization has supported the notion that there is no need to wear a mask in public unless one is infected, a health-care provider, or a person who works with geriatric or immunocompromised populations as they are susceptible to the complications of the virus.
One recent study highlighted by USA Today has shown that COVID-19 particles can travel up to 26 feet after a sneeze while another study revealed these particles can remain airborne for almost six hours. It is for these reasons that the CDC (Centres for Disease Control) has now recommended the general population should wear masks to reduce the spread of the virus especially when social distancing is not possible for example, at grocery stores. In particular, they endorse the use of cloth masks that can be made at home.
The New York Times has reported that heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) filters work the best, capturing 94 per cent of particles if layered twice (compared to the 95 per cent capture rate by N-95 masks used by health-care professionals). However, the fibres of the filters can be inhaled, and it is therefore recommended that the filters should be placed between cotton cloth.
Other materials can also be used to make masks. Dr. Segal of Wake Forest Baptist Health reported that if a material can filter out bright light, it is likely to be more protective – more so if it is layered. A 600-thread-count pillowcase can capture nearly 60 per cent of particles if it is layered four times (compared to a 60-80 per cent capture rate from surgical masks).
Overall, it is useful for the general public to begin wearing masks because not only do they stop a person from unknowingly spreading the virus (if they are asymptomatic) but they also prevent airborne particles from being inhaled to a certain degree. Nonetheless, it is important to note that by virtue of wearing a mask, other hygiene activities such as hand washing and social distancing should not be neglected as the virus can spread via surfaces, doorknobs, and hand shaking, among other ways.
1) Padilla, Ramon, and Javier Zarracina. “Coronavirus Might Spread Much Farther than 6 Feet in the Air. CDC Says Wear a Mask in Public.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, April 5, 2020, http://www.usatoday.com/in-depth/news /2020/04/03/coronavirus-protection-how-masks-might-stop-spread-through-coughs/5086553002/.
2) Parker-pope, Tara. “What’s the Best Material for a Mask?” The New York Times, The New York Times, April 5, 2020, http://www.nytimes.com/article/coronavirus-homemade-mask-material-DIY-face-mask-ppe.html.
Jaynita Maru, MBBS student (St. George’s University London), is a third-year medical student holding a BSc in biology and psychology (University of Alberta). She has extensive knowledge of British and American clinical medicine guidelines.
Austin Albert Mardon, CM, FRSC (University of Alberta) is an adjunct professor in the Faculty of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Alberta, an Order of Canada member, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He is the director of the Antarctic Institute of Canada.