- Face masks can reduce the risk of catching and spreading COVID-19, but they have somehow become a political issue during the coronavirus pandemic.
- This has prompted many to resist wearing face masks, and coronavirus cases are skyrocketing yet again as a result.
- A new interactive page from NYT explains exactly how filtration systems work in face masks, and it’s the most important thing you’ll see this week.
A sequence of seven words uttered back in April may have completely changed the course of the coronavirus pandemic in the United States. “I am choosing not to do it,” President Trump said on April 3rd, referencing his decision not to wear face masks during the pandemic. At the time, the CDC was finally advising people to wear any face cover in public places to reduce the virus’s spread, after months of saying the contrary. It wouldn’t be until July that Trump would change his tune on face masks, and he even started wearing them in public. But face masks had already been politicized, seeing plenty of resistance from people who might have benefited the most from wearing them. Many COVID-19 deniers who refused to wear masks ended up catching the disease with disastrous results.
It’s not just the US, as the anti-mask movement has supporters far and wide who usually have all sorts of theories that explain their reasoning for choosing not to wear one. But face masks do protect against pathogens, and that’s a well-known fact. The simplest proof — other than the fact that they’ve been used effectively in hospitals for decades — comes from the southern hemisphere, where face masks helped almost completely eliminate the winter flu season this year. If you’re wondering how they’re able to stop an invisible pathogen, then you have to see a beautiful new animated webpage from The New York Times.
The paper looked at the concept of face masks and explained how they can effectively block tiny particles from reaching the wearer’s mouth and nose. Whether they’re wet saliva droplets or dry aerosols, those particles are invisible to the naked eye and can travel through the air. That’s why social distancing is also advised. Aerosols travel more than six feet and they can get through the various layers of a non-medical face cover. An added benefit of face masks is preventing the wearer from touching the nose or mouth with potentially contaminated hands.
The interactive page shows different particle sizes relative to the layers of fabric inside a mask, and it explains how the particles travel in the air. The filtration process is relatively straightforward. The particles are sucked in with each breath, and then they have to go through a maze of fabric that will hopefully block them.
The bigger droplets have a harder time navigating the fabric of a face mask, and they’re usually blocked by the fibers in the various layers of fabric. But particles that are smaller than 0.5 microns might have an easier way of navigating the “forest” of fibers in a face mask. That is actually why infection is possible even if someone is wearing a mask at all times. But the risk is significantly lowered if face masks are employed.
The Times also highlights the differences between regular coverings and N95 respirators. The latter has a denser “forest,” with fibers arranged in random patterns. This, combined with an electrostatic charge, allows N95 respirators to capture even more of those medium and small particles that might get through regular cloth masks.
Another advantage is that protection is bidirectional. The person wearing the face mask might already have COVID-19 and be contagious. The droplets and aerosols are blocked by the mask regardless of the direction they’re coming from. But particles containing the novel coronavirus can still escape masks, including N95 and respirators with valves that lack proper filters. Those particles can end up in the air and get inhaled by other people nearby.
This is where the final aspect of face mask-wearing comes into play, and it’s also highlighted on the interactive site. If everybody wears masks and people keep their distance, then all these factors will further reduce the number of virus particles that end up in the air and further reduce the risk of COVID-19 transmission. Nothing can offer 100% protection, but it’s as close as we’ll ever get. Add to all that proper ventilation of indoor spaces, a health measure that more people advise, and the COVID-19 spread risk can be lowered significantly.
The Times’ animated illustration is available in full at this link, complete with an AR experience of N95 respirators (seen below). A different set of animations from ElPais explain the factors that favor indoor transmission of COVID-19, including the importance of face mask use.