Face coverings have become a common part of wardrobes over the last five months. Whether a surgical mask, a cloth covering made from cotton, or a bandana, they must be worn in public places following the implementation of mask mandates in several communities around the country.
No matter which covering one chooses to wear, some have proven more effective than others, and, in some cases, one may be better off not wearing a mask at all.
Medical-grade masks such as N95 respirators and cloth coverings are the most commonly used, followed by alternatives like bandanas and gaiters. A recent Duke University study put these different types of face coverings to the test, using a makeshift chamber with the help of a laser, lens and cellphone camera. By repeating the phrase “stay healthy, people” into a box, researchers measured the amount of droplets expelled from one’s mouth both with and without over a dozen different types of face coverings.
Duke researchers found that the baseline for droplet transmission without a mask hovers around 1%, and wearing the aforementioned alternatives actually fared worse.
The transmission rate came in at 1.1% for bandanas, and up to 1.2% for gaiters. As to why those types of coverings aren’t necessarily effective, the reasoning, researchers say, is relatively straightforward.
Although still evolving, Dr. Gerald Wilmes, director of Wellness Services at Northwest, said it comes down to the number of layers and the material being used.
“The material in general, the thinness of it … the main concern based on their study was the droplets were actually going through the material,” Wilmes said.
Researchers also said use of gaiters and similar coverings have the potential to gather larger droplets, break them up, and then disperse them through the air. That action, in turn, leaves the droplets lingering in the air for a much longer period of time, meaning the virus has a higher chance of staying airborne and spreading long after an infected individual leaves a given area.
As opposed to gaiters and bandanas, cloth face coverings are the best option most people can afford. Most available on the market today have two layers, which is often enough protection to get one by in public settings like grocery stores and classrooms, so long as they are properly worn in tandem with proper physical distancing and frequent handwashing. Masks should adequately cover one’s nose and mouth, leaving minimal gaps and fitting securely to the face. Wilmes said although research is limited, multiple layers can aid in protecting against foreign pathogens, including COVID-19.
“Intuitively, you would say two layers, but again, referring to the study, one layer of cotton can be effective,” Wilmes said.
When it comes to proper care of cloth coverings, though, having several washable masks is best.
According to a Mayo Clinic press release, daily washing with regular detergent and hot water is usually fine. To avoid shrinking, it is recommended you let them air dry as opposed to cycling through the dryer. Safe storage is best maintained if you have a resealable plastic bag you can place it in until you’re ready to run it through the wash.
Tom Patterson, administrator at the Nodaway County Health Department, said in extreme cases, they can be left to air out after use.
“If you’ve got one, you can clean it up … or if you have masks that can’t be washed because it’ll deteriorate, you could let them dry out,” Patterson said. “Worst case scenario, if you only have one, just let it dry out at night [before wearing] it again.”
Although they are in short supply nowadays, being reserved mostly for healthcare workers, fitted N95 masks provide paramount safety for wearers. The majority of N95 masks are extremely effective, only registering a droplet transmission rate of one-tenth of a percent, at most.
However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not recommend the public use these medical-grade respirators, as manufacturers are still racing to prioritize shipping personal protective equipment to those working on the front lines around the world.
Another, more cost-effective alternative to N95 masks would be surgical masks, obviously most synonymous with hospital settings. Although made to be single-use, they are often made with two or three layers of breathable material to help filter out large particles in addition to pathogens.
Wearing a surgical or medical-grade mask is much safer than tying a bandana or gaiter around your neck. Even if they aren’t necessarily secure, there is a small amount of possible transmission. Even so, as long as it is worn properly, completely covering both the mouth and nose, they should lend plenty of defense against foreign contaminants. Surgical masks should be discarded immediately after use, ideally sealed in a plastic bag.
According to experts, the importance of wearing a mask and caring for its continued use is only one-third of the battle. Patterson mentioned a few steps that, when put into practice, can be used to effectively combat the spread of coronavirus.
“Social distance [and] wear a mask where you can’t. Number two, practice good hygiene, especially handwashing,” Patterson said. “And number three, stay home if you’re sick. Don’t participate in things and expose people if you’re [ill]. Call your doctor and see if you can get an appointment.”
“This is a time where you don’t want to run around toughing it out [like] the world’s going to go away,” Patterson said. “[This] generation has been real responsive. I want to give you credit for that instead of beating you up for being kids and not paying attention and not taking this seriously.”
Patterson said seeing cases on this campus is inevitable, but if the public follows all safety directives, the student body will have a heightened chance of staying on ground throughout the duration of the fall 2020 semester.
“Mathematically, you have to see cases, but I don’t imagine it getting out of control,” Patterson said. “If you look at the numbers, [they’ve] tailed back down these past few weeks. We’re planning for the worst-case scenarios, [but] I’m optimistic.”