Masks are now a big part of our lives. The NSW Opposition is calling for face masks to be made mandatory on public transport. In Victoria, as of today, all Victorians must wear a fitted mask when outside their homes.
But only months ago, the World Health Organization (WHO), the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and most Australian health authorities were not convinced masks were necessary.
At the start of the pandemic, experts didn’t know that some people not showing symptoms could transmit the virus. Then we learnt that it’s not just large droplets from coughs and sneezes that transmit the disease.
“It may also happen when we talk or breathe heavily and exhale aerosols, which are lighter, smaller particles that can hang in the air for much longer and travel farther than socially distanced six feet,” says Neha Pathak, MD.
Some authorities were concerned that advocating the use of masks could deplete their availability for health professionals.
Dr Pathak admits “confusion and controversy” surround mask use.
Medical journal Nature agrees. It says the data surrounding the public use of masks are “messy, disparate and often hastily assembled”.
However, both also agree that masks work.
“Remember that we primarily protect others, not ourselves, when we cover our faces,” says Dr Pathak. “And other people’s masks shield us from their respiratory droplets.”
Nature’s Lynne Peeples says research shows masks “cut down the chances of both transmitting and catching the coronavirus, and some studies hint that masks might reduce the severity of infection if people do contract the disease.
“In a review of observational studies, an international research team estimates that surgical and comparable cloth masks are 67 per cent effective in protecting the wearer.”
Masks with multiple layers of fabric are more effective, and the tighter the weave, the better. Another study found that masks with layers of different materials caught aerosols more efficiently than those made from one material.
Linsey Marr, an environmental engineer at Virginia Tech, says “even a cotton T-shirt can block half of inhaled aerosols and almost 80 per cent of exhaled aerosols”.
Paul Digard, a virologist at the University of Edinburgh, UK, puts it in perspective: “Masks work, but they are not infallible. And, therefore, keep your distance.”
Monica Gandhi, an infectious disease physician at the University of California, San Francisco, says wearing a mask is not the only solution to avoiding COVID-19, but it is a “profoundly important pillar of pandemic control”.
“Masking may not only protect you from infection but also from severe illness,” Dr Gandhi says.
Dr Gandhi co-authored a paper that suggested masking reduces the dose of virus a wearer might receive, resulting in infections that are milder or even asymptomatic. If more people get mild cases, population-level immunity might rise without increased levels of severe illness and death.
“A growing number of studies show that when entire communities mask up, the virus loses its power to spread from person to person,” says Dr Pathak.
“Cloth face coverings are most likely to reduce the spread of the COVID-19 virus when they are widely used by people in public settings,” write Mayo clinic staff.
“And countries that required face masks, testing, isolation and social distancing early in the pandemic have successfully slowed the spread of the virus.”
You should wear a cloth face mask when you’re around people who don’t live with you and in public settings when it is difficult to keep a social distance.*
- a mask with three layers provides the best protection. Lab studies show that tight weaves are best for filtering microscopic viral particles; if you can see individual fibres when you hold the mask up to a light, the material likely is too thin and loosely woven. Pure cotton is better than a synthetic material such as polyester. Masks with a wire that you pinch over the bridge of your nose may keep your glasses from fogging
- wash or sanitise your hands before and after putting on and taking off your mask
- place your mask over your mouth and nose
- tie it behind your head or use ear loops and make sure it fits snugly over the bridge of your nose down to your chin. It should not dangle by the loop from your ear. Any gaps will let droplets and aerosols escape.
- don’t touch your mask while wearing it
- if you accidentally touch your mask, wash, or sanitise your hands
- if your mask becomes wet or dirty, switch to a clean one. Put the used mask in a sealable bag until you can wash it
- remove the mask by untying it or lifting off the ear loops without touching the front of the mask or your face.
- wash your hands immediately after removing your mask
- wash masks after each use. Use soap or detergent and hot water. You can air dry it. Just make sure it’s fully dry before donning it again. Damp fabric makes it hard to breathe through and may encourage bacterial growth
- regularly wash your mask with soap and water by hand or in the washing machine. It’s fine to launder it with other clothes
- at home, going without a mask might be okay if you have just one or two guests. But everyone must keep their distance
- N95 masks are tight-fitting respirators that protect both the wearer and those near them. You don’t need an N95 mask unless you regularly are near people who have COVID-19.
*In Victoria, you must wear a fitted face mask when you leave home unless an exception applies. Bandanas, scarves, and face shields no longer suffice. If you wear a shield that covers your forehead and the sides of your face it must be worn with a mask. The penalty for not wearing a mask is $200.
Do you always wear a mask when leaving the home? Are you happy with the masks you have?
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