Updated: Oct 16, 2020
Short answer: Yes. It has been shown in numerous studies that wearing masks, reduces the rate of transmission which in turn will help health and social care workers better manage this pandemic. Wearing a mask might cause you a slight discomfort until you get used to it but by wearing one you will be taking responsibility and standing together with your fellow citizens in these trying times.
If you want a deeper understanding read on:
There are numerous incidents being reported in the US, where college freshmen are attending social gatherings and parties without any face coverings. This shows that Covid-19 is not being taken seriously by certain demographics in the world. This could be due to various political reasons and self reasoning rather than an educated approach. But should we be concerned about their actions? Do masks actually work?
Let us first look at the different types of masks that are available for purchase.
Face masks are usually constructed using non-woven fabrics and plastics like polypropylene. They are made with different specifications and grades depending on the intended use.
Surgical masks are constructed with fibers that can filter out larger particles and bacteria from exhaled air. They are made to a standard and quality tested for filtration efficiency, breathing and splash resistance and flammability. However, they provide a loose fitting over your mouth and nose. It comes in different sizes but they do not provide the user with a sealed barrier against airborne particles. These masks are disposable.
Cloth face mask are made using fabrics like cotton. They can be washed and reused. These masks are cheaper and easier to make since plastics do not have to be incorporated into them. They can also be homemade by stitching several layers of fabric together. However, they do not provide the user with a sealed barrier. Since they are not tested or standardized, the user should take other precautions to ensure they are protected.
The N95 masks are a type of respirator. It is so called because it filters at least 95% of small airborne particles. It is made from non-woven synthetic polymers that provide a barrier against particles that are 0.3 microns or larger. Unlike the flexible surgical and cloth masks, they are sturdier and fitted onto the user's face to provide an airtight seal against airborne particles. Depending on the industry or country it is made for, these criteria are adjusted. Similar to surgical masks, they are disposable.
Now that we have a basic understanding on their construction let us see if it actually works.
The N95 is clearly the best mask since it provides an air tight seal. The corona virus virions (particles) measure approximately between 100 nm and 200 nm (Encyclopedia Britanica). The N95 has a filtration of 0.3 microns which is around 300 nm. Since it can filter 95 % of particles, the mask does provide significant protection to the user and the people around him/her. However, making these masks are expensive and they are in a shortage. For them to be highly efficient, each and every mask has to be fitted properly or the air tight barrier will be compromised. This means that users have to be trained on how to fit these on before they can be implemented. Therefore, it is not practical and probably impossible to equip the entire general public with these masks. As a result, the CDC recommends that these masks be solely worn by health and social care workers who are at a greater risk of exposure.
This leaves us with surgical masks and cloth masks. As stated earlier, these masks do not provide an air tight seal. They do not provide a level of filtration that the N95 masks provide but they are cheaper to make and anyone can wear one without undergoing any training. However, the gaps in the these masks are a big negative. It will not protect you against the corona virus virions that maybe floating around in the air. Given how versatile this virus is in transmitting itself from host to host, wearing cloth masks and surgical masks will not protect the wearer.
So does that mean that wearing one has no purpose. Well no. It does provide some type of a barrier against transmission. For example, if an infected person sneezes or coughs while wearing a mask, it could decrease the spread of particles. The recommended social distancing is 6 feet but sneezing or coughing could projectile contaminated particles at 100 miles/ hour. In this case 6 feet apart would be insignificant; however, a mask will dampen the sneeze and reduce transmission.
This means that wearing a mask could reduce the chances of spread of the virus to the people around you if you are infected. However, if an infected person with no mask sneezes or even breathes around you while you are wearing a mask you could still get infected. This is why it is important to understand that just wearing a mask will not be effective. Social distancing also has to be implemented. Numerous countries have required its citizens to wear masks while encouraging them to maintain a distance in crowded situations. Sri Lanka has proven that this method has helped them control and track infections while preventing community transmission.
By reducing rate of infection, health care and social workers can better maintain the situation without having to overload the limited resources available. Contact tracing and PCR testing could also be performed more efficiently which in turn will help with controlling community transmission.
The bottom line is that it is better to wear a mask if you do not have any significant breathing issues. If you do have breathing issues contracting Covid-19 could prove fatal since the respiratory system is the most vulnerable. Therefore, you should maintain strict social distancing to protect yourself. This virus could also prove fatal to people with suppressed immune systems. By wearing a mask you would be helping the people around you. You would be helping the front line workers. You would be helping to keep your family safe.
So let's wear a mask and do our best to maintain social distancing. We just have to hang in there until a vaccine is approved which could be sooner than you think.
Hope you learned something new!
coronavirus | Definition, Features, & Examples. (2020, August 27). Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/science/coronavirus-virus-group