How effective are face and cloth masks against COVID-19?
If you're wondering about the effectiveness of home-made masks, when the use of even surgical masks was discouraged not too long ago, you're not alone.
Ever since the first whispers of the novel coronavirus started floating around, there has been a huge rise in the demand for face masks. First, the N95 respirators went out of stock, then the surgical masks. Then came affordable, easy-to-make cotton face covers.
Initially, some governments discouraged the use of medical masks and N95 respirators by the general public, saying that they were useful only for medicos and people who were already sick - so they wouldn’t spread the infection further through droplets when they cough, sneeze or speak. The World Health Organization (WHO) also said that if you’re healthy, you only need to wear these masks if you’re taking care of the sick.
Now, however, many governments are encouraging the use of face covers in public. Some have even made these cotton covers mandatory during these times. If you're wondering about the effectiveness of these home-made masks, when the use of even surgical masks was discouraged not too long ago, you're not alone. A team of researchers in South Korea — which has had a great track record in containing the infection — asked the same question.
A study published in the journal of Annals of Internal Medicine earlier this month studied the effectiveness of surgical and cloth masks in preventing transmission of SAR-CoV-2, the coronavirus which causes COVID-19 .
They had four COVID-19 patients cough five times each without a mask, with a cloth mask and with a surgical mask in a negative pressure room. A new petri dish was placed 20 cm away from them during each coughing episode. Samples were taken from the patients, the petri dish, the inside of the masks and the outside of the masks after the cough.
Theoretically, a face mask should not let the virus through - the virus should only be present on the inside of the masks. But the results showed that not only was the virus present on the outside of both the cloth and the surgical mask (and the petri dish in some cases), it was present in higher quantities on the outside than the inside of the masks. In most cases, the virus was not even present on the inside of the mask.
There are three things to take from this:
- Depending on wearing a mask alone may not be enough to prevent the disease.
- It suggests that a surgical mask may not protect you any better than a cloth mask would.
- It reinforces the importance of not touching the outside surface of the mask with your hands.
Face cover recommendations
While the study does raise questions about the effectiveness of face masks and face covers, it is important to comply with the rules that your governments have set for the public. This study was based on four patients - a lot more research is required for there to be a better understanding of how SARS-CoV-2 transmits through masks and other barriers.
The WHO clearly states that wearing a face mask is only effective when used in combination with frequent hand-washing.
And while the use of face covers, good hand and respiratory hygiene and physical distancing is still the best defence we have against COVID-19 , face masks may help in at least one oblique way - they could help you to avoid touching your face, especially the nose and mouth. This, in turn, could go some way to prevent infection.
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