Time for better masks?

Ian Forrester selfie with a mask

I was reading through my feeds and saw the piece from the Guardian titled Everyday Covid mistakes we are all still making.

Covid-19 infections in the UK are reducing but remain stubbornly high, despite a month of lockdown measures. So could we be doing more as individuals to curb transmission of the virus? A virologist, a psychologist and a public health expert share their views on some of the Covid-19 mistakes that we are all still making.

The rest of the article gives some interesting tips for hopefully avoiding Covid19. Most are common sense but they are well made for example failing to appreciate what ‘airborne’ really means.

If you can smell someone’s garlic or alcohol breath, or cigarette smoke, you’re inhaling air carrying not just the smell of the garlic, alcohol or smoke, but any virus that’s leaving their nose or mouth if they’re infected, said Julian Tang, a clinical virologist and honorary associate professor in the respiratory sciences department at the University of Leicester. “How much virus depends on different people and their different immune responses. But if you stand there for long enough, you’ll inhale enough to possibly infect you.”

And just as you’ll eventually detect the smell of cigarette smoke if someone lights up on the opposite side of the office, airborne viruses gradually accumulate in stuffy indoor conditions, which is why ventilation is so important.

Ventilation doesn’t just mean opening a window. “The clue is in the name: vent, or wind,” said Gabriel Scally, a visiting professor of public health at the University of Bristol and a member of Independent Sage. “You do need a draught going through. People should be conscious of ventilation in the workplace, shops, or any enclosed space – including at home, which is where most transmission takes place.”

During the summer months I thought about this quite a lot, especially with people vaping. Sometimes the cloud of stream/smoke will spread a lot way. I kept thinking lets really hope they are not asymptomatic or tomorrow going to develop Covid19.

How ever the big one I have been thinking about is face-covering, or as the guardian headlines Inadequate face-covering

The mantra ‘hands, face, space,’ is really the wrong way around. All are important for preventing virus transmission, but physical distancing – including preventing small and large-scale gatherings – has the greatest impact, said Tang: “Masking is kind of in the middle. But, if the mask is used as a backup for when you can’t physically distance, or in poorly ventilated areas, it can help a lot.”

The current UK government advice is to pick a face covering that covers both your nose and mouth. Ideally, it should include at least two layers of fabric – although a scarf, bandana or religious garment is acceptable. The World Health Organization recommends three layers for fabric masks.

That advice could change in the face of more transmissible variants, said Scally. “I think there will be very strong voices saying that the three layer face coverings that we’ve got used to are really not adequate, and we should probably have the FFP2-type ventilator masks.”

These are already mandatory in shops and on public transport in Austria and Bavaria. In France and the rest of Germany, surgical masks are required. The main problem with fabric masks is that their quality varies a lot. Some three-layered masks are as good at blocking particles as surgical masks, but flimsy single layers of fabric block far less.

Just a week later the Atlantic’s Zeynep Tufekci and Jeremy Howard ask the serious question why aren’t we wearing better masks?

Don’t get us wrong; everything we said about the efficacy of cloth masks stands the test of time. Wearing them is much better than wearing nothing. They definitely help reduce transmission of the coronavirus from the wearer and likely protect the wearer to some degree as well. But we know that not all masks are equal, and early on in the pandemic, there was a dire shortage of higher-grade masks for medical workers. During those emergency conditions, something was much better than nothing. There are better possibilities now, but they require action and guidance by the authorities.

Even all cloth masks are not equal. Construction, materials, and fit matter, and these can’t be tracked or certified with homemade masks. Unlike cloth masks, medical-grade masks (also called respirators) that adhere to standards such as N95 (in the U.S.), FFP2 (in the European Union), and KN95 (in China) do a much better job of protecting the wearer and dampening transmission. Ideally, they should also come with instructions on how to wear them and ensure that they fit properly.

I don’t think masks are the sole problem but its a good point that maybe its time we started wearing better masks now. Some clear direction on this from experts would be useful too. Although people will still wear them around their cheeks and have their noses poking out the top no matter what directions are said. I’m hearing from multiple sources (one includes a doctor) about the importance of sealing the mouth and nose, as the ones which droop around the ears don’t provide enough of a seal for the wearer. If you look at the PPE hospital staff (finally?) can get their hands on to treat Covid19 cases. It completely seals off their lower face.

Its clear we are going to be living through this pandemic for another year (sorry to say) and even with the vaccine, the advice is to still protect yourself and the public around you. Now feels like its a good time for a serious upgrade on masks (but not that Rich Guy COVID Helmet!)

The BBC recently put out a video surrounding the better face covering space…

Author: Ianforrester

Senior firestarter at BBC R&D, emergent technology expert and serial social geek event organiser.