COLLEGE PARK, Md. — There’s been a whole lot of conflicting information in recent weeks about just how advisable wearing a mask in public is during this pandemic. Now, in the wake of President Trump’s recent recommendation that Americans cover their faces when stepping outside, a joint international study is offering a scientific take on the mask debate. Researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Hong Kong say that masks do indeed appear to impede the spread of seasonal viruses like the novel coronavirus.
In a series of lab experiments, the use of face masks “significantly reduced” the amount of airborne viruses traveling from infected individuals. A specially designed “breath capturing” device, created by Dr. Don Milton of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, was used for this study. Dr. Milton has already passed his findings along to the White House. Coincidentally, these results mirror a recent announcement from the CDC that the organization is reconsidering its one time decree that masks aren’t all that helpful outside of medical settings.
Beyond just organizational guidelines, the mask question has been a controversial one for society; some stores across the U.S. have refused to let their employees wear face masks, and there have been numerous reports of assaults on Asian Americans who were wearing masks. It’s undeniable that the coronavirus has changed everyone’s life, but since face masks are such a blatant reminder of the situation, they often invoke a visceral, emotional response.
This study was actually performed before the pandemic broke out. Furthermore, its findings have no bearing on the question of if masks can protect one from infection. What these results do suggest, however, is that masks are an effective way for infected individuals to limit their contagiousness around other people.
Even if the negating effect of the masks on the virus’ spread is minimal, Milton believes it is worth it for everyone to wear masks outside their home.
“In normal times we’d say that if it wasn’t shown statistically significant or the effective in real-world studies, we don’t recommend it,” he comments in a press release. “But in the middle of a pandemic, we’re desperate. The thinking is that even if it cuts down transmission a little bit, it’s worth trying.”
Some infectious disease specialists first theorized that the novel coronavirus was only capable of being spread via a cough or sneeze. Now, though, there is strong evidence that that the virus is capable of spreading just by inhaling the breath of someone close by who is infected. Masks can mitigate that possibility to a large extent.
The experiments for this research were carried out in Hong Kong by Dr. Nancy Leung among 246 people with a suspected respiratory viral infection. The amount of viral particles each participant exhaled with a mask and without a mask were compared.
“In 111 people infected by either coronavirus, influenza virus or rhinovirus, masks reduced detectable virus in respiratory droplets and aerosols for seasonal coronaviruses, and in respiratory droplets for influenza virus,” Dr. Leung explains. “In contrast, masks did not reduce the emission of rhinoviruses.”
Despite this research taking place before the emergence of this new viral strain, researchers say COVID-19 is very similar to the studied viruses.
“The ability of surgical masks to reduce seasonal coronavirus in respiratory droplets and aerosols implies that such masks can contribute to slowing the spread of (COVID-19) when worn by infected people,” says Professor Benjamin Cowling, division head of epidemiology and biostatistics at Hong Kong University’s School of Public Health. Cowling is also the co-director of the World Health Organization Collaborating Centre for Infectious Disease Epidemiology and Control.
It’s important to note that Dr. Milton believes there are many other containment strategies more effective than wearing masks, such as improved ventilation in grocery stores.
“Personal protective equipment like N95 masks are not our first line of defense,” he concludes. “They are our last desperate thing that we do.”
Mask Warning: Skin Damage Possible
Speaking of masks, regardless of how you feel about civilians wearing masks throughout day-to-day life, it’s indisputable that these protective devices are essential for healthcare workers. As this pandemic plays out, countless nurses and doctors find themselves wearing masks for 12+ hours each day. On that note, researchers at the University of Huddersfield examined a perhaps overlooked aspect of this practice, and concluded that masks can cause significant skin damage due to sweating and rubbing against the nose for long periods of time.
“The wearers are sweating underneath the masks and this causes friction, leading to pressure damage on the nose and cheeks,” comments Professor Karen Ousey in a release. “There can be tears to the skin as a result and these can lead to potential infection.”
Professor Ousey and her team recommend that medical workers periodically moisturize and clean their skin, and apply a barrier cream at least a half hour before putting a mask on.
“We are suggesting that pressure from the mask is relieved every two hours. So you come away from the patient, relieve the pressure in a safe place and clean the skin again,” She adds. “And if they do feel their masks rubbing, take them off as soon as they safely can.”