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Medical Masks & Face Clothing Coverings: Do They Prevent Against COVID-19 or Slow the Spread of the Novel Coronavirus?

Recent studies on coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) indicate that people who are asymptomatic (not exhibiting symptoms) and pre-symptomatic (developing symptoms) are capable of transmitting the infectious disease to other people.

As a result of the new revelation, various local and international health institutions including several governments are advising the public or their citizens to wear masks in public or situations whereby it is possible to spread or become infected by COVID-19.

Virus Protection

Virus Protection

How Coronavirus is Spread

Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19), an infectious disease is caused by a new strain of coronavirus, severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-COV-2). The virus was identified in December 2019 in Wuhan town, Hubei Province, China.

While scientists don't know where the virus originated from or how the first person was infected, studies show that human-to-human transmission is occuring worldwide. How the virus is spread from human-to-human is not clearly known but scientists are working on answering the pressing questions on the virus and the disease it causes.

Human-to-human transmission occurs when an uninfected person inhales respiratory drops containing traces of SARS-COV-2 that have been released by an infected person into the air through sneezing, coughing or talking. This is the major mode of transmission. This is the reason why people are advised to maintain social distancing of not less than 6 feet. While it is not yet clear how far a person has to be from another to prevent the possibility of getting the virus, the minimum recommended distance is 6 feet.

The other means of transmission is through touching objects or surfaces that might be contaminated by the virus. The virus might gain an entry into a human body when a person touches a surface or object contaminated with the virus then touches his/her eyes, nose or mouth. This is the reason why people are advised to wash their hands frequently with a soap and water or an alcohol-based hand rub.

Wearing of Masks

As noted above, the recommendation to use medical masks especially in public areas has resulted from the knowledge gained from studies on COVID-19 that asymptomatic individuals can spread the disease to others. Several health institutions and individual experts assert that wearing of masks slows the transmission of the virus. Consequently, the wearing of masks is not necessarily meant to prevent one from getting COVID-19 but to cushion an asymptomatic individual from spreading the virus.

According to U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), wearing face masks aid in reducing the spread of the coronavirus disease in public settings whereby it is difficult to maintain social distancing. This is particularly the case in settings where there is evidential community-based transmission.

Due to the shortage supply of surgical and respiratory masks, CDC is urging the U.S. public to use face clothing coverings. The healthcare workers are in dire need of medical masks which are in acute shortage. Unlike the public, healthcare workers are highly vulnerable in contracting the disease since they're exposed to a high concentration of the virus when treating COVID-19 patients.

In retrospect to the use of face cloth coverings, CDC states that simple masks "slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure."

As noted above, unlike the public, healthcare workers are exposed to high concentration of the virus in the hospital setting. In regards to this, Business Insider notes, "Healthcare workers are exposed to a much higher concentration of the virus, both in the form of patients coughing droplets and oxygen machine aerosolizing the virus - for example, when they're intubating patients - allowing infectious particles to linger in the air. Members of the public are much less likely to encounter particles of the virus in the air, particularly if everyone is avoiding interacting with others and washing their hands as recommended."

While cloth face coverings don't offer much protection against contracting or controlling the spread of the disease, it is accepted having a form of protection is better than having none at all.

The Debate: Are Masks Effective in Slowing the Spread of Novel Coronavirus?

There is much that is unknown about the novel coronavirus. One of the pressing questions is whether masks can prevent a person from getting the coronavirus disease. There are conflicting opinions from the health field pertaining to the effectiveness of using masks in lowering the spread of the virus or preventing a person from getting the disease.

According to Business Insider, the effectiveness on the use of masks including simple cloth masks is derived from past studies on respiratory viruses including flu. Currently, it is not known how effective surgical masks and cloth face coverings are against the novel coronavirus. Among the many factors is that scientists don't known whether the novel coronavirus is similar in the size of its particles to other viruses and whether how it moves is similar or different from other viruses.

Past studies show that medical masks and N95 respirators are more effective in minimizing the spread of viral particles than cloth face masks.

"One 2015 study found that cloth masks only blocked 3% of particles, compared with medical masks (which stopped 56% of particles) and N95s (protective against 99.9% of particles, the study found)" states Business Insider. Furthermore, "A 2013 study found that cloth masks made from cotton T-shirts, pillowcase, or tea towels should be used as a last resort - they only filtered out a third of the aerosols blocked by a surgical mask - though it was found to be "better than no protection.""

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According to MedicineNet, face mask play a limited role in preventing people from getting infected. The medical organization notes situations whereby the masks are ineffective in preventing a person from the novel coronavirus. They are:

  1. A surgical mask does not fit tightly over the nose and mouth.
  2. It is not possible to prevent airborne virus infection.
  3. It is difficult to keep a mask on for long periods of time.
  4. When you touch the mask, you lose the protection and must replace the mask,and dispose of it safely.

The World Health Organization (WHO) Position on Wearing of Masks

WHO asserts that people who are healthy should wear a medical mask if they're caring for an infected person (suspected or confirmed), or people who are exhibiting signs of the viral infection, that is, coughing or sneezing.

The organisation notes that surgical masks are in shortage supply thus the public needs to use them when they're either infected or caring for an infected person.

WHO's Guideline on the Use of Masks

When using surgical masks, uttermost care needs to be observed. According to WHO, use of masks will only be effective when the users frequently wash their hands with alcohol-based hand rub and soap.

This is supported by Healthline which notes that past studies found that "flu rates were lower when masks were paired with proper hand hygiene...In other words, regular hand washing remains an essential tool on preventing the spread of viruses."

The followingis a guideline provided by WHO on how to wear medical masks, how to dispose of the masks and what to consider during the process.

  1. Before putting on a mask, clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  2. Cover mouth and nose with mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.
  3. Avoid touching the mask while using it; if you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.
  4. Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.
  5. To remove the mask: remove it from behind (do not touch the front of the mask); discard immediately in a closed basin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

While surgical masks and face cloth masks don't offer much protection against the coronavirua disease, "...when worn by the public at large, they can still help reduce the community spread of viruses. This is because they help prevent people without symptoms from transmitting viruses via their respiratory droplets." (Health line)

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2020 Alianess Benny Njuguna


Alianess Benny Njuguna (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 03, 2020:

See you the. Happy Sunday too and stay safe.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 02, 2020:

Benny, you're welcomed. Thank you. I will go google for more information. Happy Sunday and bye for now.

Alianess Benny Njuguna (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 02, 2020:

Thank you, Miebakagh. That's so kind of you. I appreciate it very much.

I wish you that I was your next door neighbour. I would have accepted the warm gesture with both hands.

It's good to know your son is a fashion designer. There are online scientific tutorials from medical experts how to make better masks and which cloths to use.

Thank you once again.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 02, 2020:

Ben, your response is timely. Thank you. My son is a fashion designer/taylor. He is visiting today and promise to bring face mask he made for the family. I will take the chance to advice him scientifically to do a better virus eliminating mask. I would like to deliver my design copies of the masks my son will produce if you happen to be my next door neighbor. Thanks again and enjoy the day.

Alianess Benny Njuguna (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 02, 2020:

You are right Miebakagh. It's better to have a form of protection than none at all. With different strains of viruses erupting and how this coronavirus is mutating, masks do help even if it's a little bit.

Thank you. I appreciate it.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 02, 2020:

Ben, in spite of that, the corona virus has puzzled our scientists for long. The fact that another strain of the virus can later be identify is not remote. So, we all can manage with a good face covering. I do. But the merit of the later is it can be wash, sterilized with izal or detol, and re-used. Your article is a good read because I am scientific minded. I will sharing on facebook. Enjoy the day.

Alianess Benny Njuguna (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on May 01, 2020:

Thank you Miebakagh for your comment. You are right the medical masks offer limited protection to doctors who wear them.

The shortage of N95 respirators has compounded matters.

Miebakagh Fiberesima from Port Harcourt, Rivers State, NIGERIA. on May 01, 2020:

Benny, this is a very useful and practical message. One will notice that doctors who wore the medical mask protection is limited. Thanks for sharing.

Alianess Benny Njuguna (author) from Nairobi, Kenya on April 14, 2020:

Thank you, Shreyasraj for your feedback.

Shreyasraj from Bangalore on April 13, 2020:

Good message!

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