Following updated guidance from the CDC that recommends people wear masks again - particularly in crowded areas such as on public transport - the efficacy of masks has been questioned once again. While there is ample evidence that masks effectively slow the spread of COVID-19, some still argue against the need for respiratory protection.
In order to clear up some of the uncertainty regarding masks, Tina Donvito for BuzzFeed News discusses some common misconceptions about how masks work and why it’s important we still wear them today with the surge of the ‘tripledemic’ of flu, RSV and COVID.
Donvito begins by discussing droplets and how masks work at preventing droplets from becoming airborne. Since COVID is primarily spread via respiratory droplets, it’s important to prevent them from becoming airborne and wearing a mask is the best way to do this. If an infected individual wears a mask, many particles will be captured before having the opportunity to become airborne and therefore spread.
However, it’s likely that some particles will still escape the mask and become airborne - especially with many using cloth masks and poorly fitting surgical masks. In this case, it’s important for susceptible individuals also to wear a mask as these will filter the majority of particles before they are inhaled by the wearer. For this reason, the ideal scenario is that everyone wears a mask.
A respirator such as an N95 is the way to go for the best protection. These devices can filter far smaller aerosols and therefore provide a significantly higher degree of protection, whether worn by the infected or susceptible individual.
Ample science backs up both the efficacy of surgical masks and respirators in slowing and sometimes even preventing the spread of respiratory viruses. However, masking mandates have also been questioned, with articles on sites such as the New York Times questioning whether they are useful.
However, since these articles were published, further studies have shown how mask mandates work. A study by Yale and Stanford researchers in rural Bangladesh found that in a village where 43% of villagers wore masks, COVID cases dropped by 10% compared to a village where only 11% of people wore masks. For people over 60, this drop increased to 35%.
Donvito finally tackles the subject of which masks should be worn. Earlier in the pandemic, we saw all kinds of masks worn. From bandanas to cloth masks to surgical masks and respirators, you could find a wide range of masks worn on the street. Times have changed, though, and high-quality respirators are now readily available.
Since few people are wearing masks, it’s important to wear a respirator where possible. These devices have the ability to filter even ultrafine aerosols, and they will provide a level of protection above what a surgical mask can. While they do require fit-testing to provide the best protection, even a self-checked respirator provides far more protection than a surgical or cloth mask.
The BuzzFeed article also discusses more points such as when to cover up, and we recommend checking it out if you want to learn more!