- Coronavirus transmission can be reduced with the help of face masks, social distancing, and frequent handwashing.
- Not all face masks and homemade coverings can provide enough protection, as some of them have better filtration systems than others.
- A strange recommendation from the Indian government advises the population to avoid some masks that were believed to be of the safest face masks that you can buy.
One of the most unexpected controversies of the novel coronavirus concerns face masks. Health organizations like the WHO and CDC said in the early months of the pandemic that face masks can’t prevent the spread of the virus, even though many people in Asia were wearing them at the time. Then in April, that line changed as more evidence came in, proving that talking is enough for an infected person to spread the virus to others. Face masks or homemade coverings were then advised starting in early April. In the weeks that followed, Dr. Anthony Fauci explained that the initial strategy was a lie in order to preserve the limited PPE supply to ensure that healthcare workers have access to them. As supply increased, the government felt ready to advise the general public to use face masks. But just as more people started wearing masks in public, Donald Trump and officials in other countries refused to wear masks in public. Suddenly, the world had to deal with an increasing number of anti-mask protestors who came up with all sorts of reasons to explain why they don’t want to wear PPE in public places. In recent weeks, the WHO acknowledged that the virus can spread via aerosols in the air, but stopped short for strongly recommending face masks. Trump also started endorsing face masks in recent weeks, a marked departure from his initial stance on the matter. Still, protestors did not just go away because months worth of damage has already been done by the administration’s poor messaging.
With all that in mind, the latest episode in this face mask saga comes from India, where the government is warning people that a type of the safest face masks you can buy can’t block the coronavirus. It’s unclear what science this new advisory is based on, and the warning might have an unexpected ripple effect around the world, further fueling anti-mask campaigns.
While face masks and homemade coverings can reduce the transmission of the novel coronavirus and other pathogens, no type of mask can offer 100% protection. It’s enough to touch other people or surfaces and then touch your nose, ears, or mouth to get infected. Face masks should be used with social distancing and frequent handwashing to increase their effectiveness. That said, face masks offer a barrier between people, one that can stop some of these particles from reaching others and reduce the viral load in the air.
Of all the face masks that you can find in stores right now, the ones that are marked N95 are supposed to be among the safest, offering better filtration that the regular surgical masks. Some of these N95 masks come with valves, which the Indian government says can’t protect against the novel coronavirus. The Director-General of Health Services (DGHS) in the Indian Ministry of Health wrote a letter to the Principal Secretaries of health and medical education of states, NDTV reports.
The letter says that “inappropriate use” of N95 masks has been observed, especially those with valved respirators. It’s apparently the public who is not using the masks correctly, not designated health workers.
“It is to bring to your knowledge that the use of valved respirator N-95 masks is detrimental to the measures adopted for preventing the spread of coronavirus as it does not prevent the virus from escaping out of the mask. In view of the above, I request you to instruct all concerned to follow the use of face/mouth cover and prevent inappropriate use of N-95 masks,” DGHS Rajiv Garg said
It’s unclear what studies were performed to back up these claims, or whether the DGHS is lying like the US government did initially in order to prevent the public from hoarding PPE that could be used by health workers.
The Indian government issued an advisory in April on the use of homemade covers for face and mouth, asking people to wear them when they leave their homes. From the looks of it, the government insisted on people using a homemade solution, explaining that the covers will need to be washed and cleaned each day.
These recommendations said the color of the fabric does not matter — and of course, it does not. The government also said that the fabric should be washed in boiling salted water for five minutes and dried before making face covers at home. A homemade mask should fit well and should have no gaps on the sides. Once it becomes damp or humid, it should be changed for a new one.
A recent study looked at cloth masks, showing which ones are the safest. The Indian government doesn’t mention any studies, however. India has the world’s third-largest COVID-19 caseload after the US and Brazil. As of Wednesday morning, the country had more than 1.2 million cases and nearly 29,000 deaths. India is the world’s second-most populous country after China, with over 1.3 billion residents.