To mask or not to mask — that is the question.
In the early days of the coronavirus outbreak, many health experts hoped to mitigate panic by assuring the public that face masks-for-all would not likely be an efficient step towards preventing a global pandemic, which has now reached more than 180 countries around the world, according to the World Health Organization (WHO).
And now, some public health leaders, including former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Dr. Scott Gottlieb, have begun to suggest, despite a lack of evidence to the contrary, that perhaps it is better to be safe than sorry — even if that means wearing a scarf around your face.
Meanwhile, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and a member of the White House’s coronavirus task force, told CNN that his team, as well as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), would consider updating their mask guidelines, though no action to that end has been made at this time.
While medical discourse continues on the subject, here’s an overview of everything we know about face masks to help you decide for yourself.
Should you wear a mask to prevent contracting the coronavirus?
According to Dr. Vanessa Raabe, assistant professor of pediatric infectious diseases at NYU Langone, there’s little scientific evidence to show that medical face masks or other forms of facial protective gear alone are effective in keeping healthy individuals from inhaling infectious particles.
“It’s not a guarantee against infection,” said Dr. Raabe told The Post.
A review of 67 studies in published in 2011 found that the combination of wearing masks along with vigilant hand-washing and the isolation of sick people are effective measures against the spread of respiratory viruses. They also noted that fitted N95 respirators, which many complain are expensive, uncomfortable and difficult to use (even health-care workers take an annual test to prove they know how), performed no better when compared to simple surgical masks.
Raabe explained that most studies show how masks curb sick individuals from spreading infection. But if that person isn’t wearing any face protection, those people around them “can still potentially breathe in infectious particles around the sides of the mask.”
What may be most frightening to health experts is that there are some people infected with COVID-19 who are asymptomatic, and that viral shedding may continue after those who once had symptoms recover.
Dr. Donald K. Milton, an expert in environmental and occupational health at the University of Maryland, explained the mask debate to Consumer Reports.
“The argument is that since anyone can be infected without knowing it and spread the infection, that everyone should wear masks,” said Milton. “In the US, where we are not prepared to test rapidly and aggressively trace and quarantine all contacts, surgical masks could be helpful.”
What are the CDC and WHO mask guidelines?
Both the CDC and the WHO continue to maintain that healthy people without chronic medical conditions can go without, unless they are caring for someone who is ill.
The current CDC recommendations focus on best practices for sick individuals, but not the general public. They state:
- If you are sick: You should wear a face mask, if available, when you are around other people (including before you enter a health-care provider’s office).
- If you are caring for others: If the person who is sick is not able to wear a face mask (for example, because it causes trouble breathing), then as their caregiver, you should wear a face mask when in the same room with them. Visitors, other than caregivers, are not recommended.”
- Note: During a public health emergency, face masks may be reserved for health-care workers. You may need to improvise a face mask using a scarf or bandana.
Unfortunately, that message hasn’t stopped widespread consumer stockpiling and price-gouging of the potentially life-saving medical supplies that hospitals so desperately need right now.
How much do face masks cost?
Global panic has prompted many to buy-out stores’ stock of face masks, while many enterprising scammers have taken to hoarding and stealing masks, possibly with the intent to sell at a higher price. The shortage has become so dire that US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams has publicly pleaded with consumers to “stop buying masks” so that medical professionals may use them instead.
Meanwhile, the national shortage of face masks and other medical supplies hasn’t stopped some retailers from taking advantage of panicked consumers by jacking up their prices on face masks by 1,000 percent in some cases, despite the fact that price-gouging is a federal crime.
So how much should they cost? Although prices and availability vary widely at this time, customers should expect to pay less than a dollar per mask. Unfortunately, online buyers may have to wait more than a month to get them to their door.
Do homemade face masks work?
Now that commercial medical masks are in dangerously short supply, many have begun crafting their own for personal use, or making as many as they can to donate to medical staff and otherwise immunocompromised individuals — a heartwarming endeavor.
That said, few studies have been conducted on the efficacy of disease prevention via household materials. A 2013 study by Cambridge University cautioned that makeshift masks “should only be considered as a last resort.” It found that the average handmade mask fit only half as well as surgical masks, leaving room for infected aerosols to enter and exit through the gaps, and that conventional masks performed three times better at the filtration of micron particles than sewn-cloth counterparts.
But desperate times call for desperate measures. In this case, Cambridge recommended a double-layer of pillowcase or T-shirt fabric for mask-making, which proved to be around 70-percent effective at blocking the smallest particles tested.
“A homemade mask should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals,” the study concludes, “but it would be better than no protection.”
Can you disinfect and reuse masks?
Researchers at Stanford recently established N95decon.org as a resource to medical professional on how to safely disinfect disposable N95 respirators — so-called because they block 95 percent of particles — for reuse, but that advice won’t help those at home.
Simpler surgical face masks, made of a specialized paper-like material, should not be reused as they may capture and trap infected particles, nor can they be effectively washed or sanitized with any cleaning product.
Nevertheless, the CDC says that “extended use” is preferred over reuse in clinical settings — meaning medical workers should opt to wear the same mask all day and then dispose of it, as opposed to taking it off between seeing coronavirus patients. (Under other circumstances, the practice can be acceptable in cases of certain illnesses.)
Those using homemade cloth masks may have the benefit of being able to wash and sanitize their mask, but they’ll want to make sure they have plenty of backups on hand — lest they plan to do laundry all day.
The WHO recommends cloth masks be brought to a temperature of at least 133 degrees Fahrenheit to kill the coronavirus. As always, a soapy scrub is recommended, and tumble-drying on high heat, which can reach temperatures between 135 to 150 degrees, will help.
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