There is so much confusion about whether people should wear masks and why and what kind. Much of the confusion around masks stems from a lack of understanding about the two different functions of masks.
Masks can be worn to protect the wearer from getting infected or masks can be worn to protect others from being infected by the wearer. Protecting the wearer is difficult: It requires medical-grade respirator masks, a proper fit, and careful putting on and taking off. But masks can also be worn to prevent transmission to others, and this is their most important use for the population. If lowering the possibility of one person infecting another, the impact is amazing, so even a small reduction in those odds results in a huge decrease in deaths. Luckily, blocking transmission outward at the source is much easier.
The main way COVID-19 is spread is via droplets that fly out of our mouths—that includes when we speak, not just when we cough or sneeze. This is especially relevant for doctors and nurses who work with sick people all day. That’s why their gear is called “personal protective equipment,” or PPE, and has stringent requirements for fit in order to stop ingress—the term for the transmission of these outside particles to the wearer. Until now, most discussion about masks has been directed at protecting medical workers from ingress.
But the opposite concern also exists: egress, or transmission of particles from the wearer to the outside world. Up until now, less research has been conducted on egress, but controlling it is crucial to stopping the person-to-person spread of a disease. Obviously, population compliance becomes very important during a pandemic. Unfortunately, information online doesn’t properly distinguish between ingress and egress, which adds to the confusion.
The good news is that preventing transmission to others through egress is relatively simple. Research shows that even a cotton mask reduces the number of virus particles emitted from our mouths—by as much as 99%.
COVID-19 has been hard to control partly because people can infect others before they themselves display any symptoms—and even if they never develop any illness. Recent studies show that nearly half of patients are infected by people who aren’t coughing or sneezing yet. Many people have no awareness of the risk they pose to others, because they don’t feel sick themselves, and many never become ill.
If we could just keep our germs from being sent out every time we spoke or coughed, many fewer people would be infected. Masks help us do that. And because we don’t know for sure who’s sick, the only solution is for everyone to wear masks. My mask protects you; your masks protect me.
Models show that if 80 percent of people wear masks that are 60 percent effective, easily achievable with most masks, that’s enough to halt the spread of the disease. Many countries already have more than 80 percent of their population wearing masks in public, where most stores deny entry to unmasked customers, and more than 30 countries that legally require masks in public spaces. Mask use in combination with physical distancing is even more powerful.
A vaccine may take years, and in the meantime, we will need to find ways to make our societies function as safely as possible. Our governments can and should ensure medical workers have everything they need. But ordinary people are not helpless; in fact, we have more power than we realize. Along with keeping our distance whenever possible and maintaining good hygiene, all of us wearing just a mask could help stop this pandemic in its tracks.
Article by: Sheila Fox-Lovell
Shandy Creative Solutions