Personal Protective Equipment

How Much Protection Do Disposable Face Masks Offer?


How Much Protection Do Disposable Face Masks Offer?

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, many experts have started to question official guidance about whether healthy, ordinary people should take to regular disposable masks or scarfs to protect themselves. The World Health Organization and the centers for disease control and prevention continue to state that disposable face masks do not necessarily protect individuals from getting infected as they go about their daily lives. However, it does prevent people with visible symptoms from spreading the infection.

How Effective are Disposable Face Masks?

The official guidance from authorities has, time and again, recommended that medical-surgical masks should be reserved for people who are, in fact, already sick, as well as for the health workers and caregivers who must interact with infected individuals daily. Everyone else should resort to practicing healthy hand hygiene like frequent hand washing and maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from other people to contain the spread of the virus.

However, the recent surge in infections globally but especially in the United States has put the country at the center of this epidemic with more confirmed cases than China, Italy or any other country for that matter. What this naturally translates to is that more Americans are now at the risk of getting infected.

Hence, healthy individuals, especially those with essential jobs who cannot afford to stay home and are having to use public transportation or even close interaction and socializing with others, should resort to wearing disposable masks regularly without fail. The situation has rapidly spiraled out of control, and the swift increase in cases highlights, to a high degree, the sheer importance of adhering to and implementing safe public health measures.

While wearing a 3-ply disposable mask probably does not prevent healthy people from getting sick, and it most definitely doesn’t replace necessary measures like social distancing or handwashing, it is better than doing nothing. There is little data to show that flat 3-ply disposable masks or surgical masks offer enough protection for the general public. Instead of stopping getting infected from others, masks work by blocking infected droplets spewing from their mouth or nose when they sneeze or cough. This is why C.D.C and W.H.O recommended that those already infected with the virus wear masks to protect those who come into close contact with them.

It is, however, mandatory for healthcare workers to wear medical surgical masks as part of the P.P.E. because they frequently interact with sick patients and often have to lean close for critical medical procedures. They expose themselves to higher amounts of infectious particles and are at a greater risk of being infected than someone who is social distancing at home. If healthy individuals start stockpiling 3-ply disposable masks and high-grade N95 masks, they will undoubtedly make it very difficult for health care workers and those who need it the most to get the resources to battle relentlessly in the frontlines.

However, when N95 masks are not available, antiviral disposable masks do protect people more, especially when combined with hand hygiene. Besides, wearing a 3-ply disposable mask also reduces the likelihood that people will touch their faces frequently, which is a known mode of transmission of the virus from contaminated objects/surfaces to unsuspecting individuals. The disposable or surgical masks, albeit less effective in keeping the viruses out, merely function as a constant reminder not to touch your face when it itches or rub your eyes.

The N95 v/s 3-Ply Disposable Masks

The ‘95’ in N95 masks come from the fact that these can block 95% of minuscule air particles.

3-Ply disposable masks are not equipped to block particles smaller than 100 microns. They cannot be reliable and instrumental in healthcare settings or controlling COVID-19. Only high filter masks can protect the wearer, unlike simple surgical masks from infection due to their design. This simple mouth and nose protector, a mask made of a rather thin paper fleece which is knotted behind the head with ribbons, was exclusively and formerly used in operating theatres. In the long run, it works only if the mask is changed regularly and disposed of hygienically and safely. A disposable surgical mask has to be replaced after every use, and if worn repeatedly, it will lose its effectiveness very soon.

In many Asian countries, everyone is being encouraged to put on a 3-ply disposable mask, and the approach is about crowd psychology and protection. When everyone resorts to maks, individuals protect each other, thereby reducing the overall community transmission. They also symbolize that it’s not business as usual during a pandemic. Above everything, they serve as overarching visual reminders to improve other hygiene measures and aggressively implement and practice social distancing measures.

They also serve as an act of solidarity, showing that everyone in the community is on board with the necessary precautionary measures needed to bring infections under control. But the first step is to have enough masks to make this an effective policy in places worst hit by the coronavirus pandemic. Medical face masks should, however, be prioritized for healthcare workers.

If you are out of masks and wish to wear one, you can always make one at home. There are a plethora of online tutorials on how to make easy D.I.Y. face masks. Suggestions include using everyday household items like cotton fabric from old T-shirts or bedding. But be aware that they are not regulated and may not meet safety requirements as do the other masks. Reusable cloth masks are not recommended at all and may even increase the chance of infection. Remember, fluid repellent masks for healthcare staff are crucial to the safety and to avoid the spread of coronavirus.

Protection from any kind of mask, be it N95 or a disposable surgical mask, will work only if many other protective measures are taken at the same time. Strict hygiene when putting on the mask or protective goggles, or overall, proper disposal of possibly contaminated items and frequent hand washing is crucial.

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