The use of face masks by the general public has now been advocated in several countries across the globe, with many governments using them as part of their control strategy for COVID-19. Yet many individuals are still disputing the value and effectiveness of face masks. As we learn more and more about the virus, including its transmission, we are in a much stronger position to suggest why we should be wearing one.
The World Health Organisation didn’t recommend face mask use early on in the pandemic, so why now?
There was a genuine concern at the start of the pandemic that there was insufficient supply of surgical masks for health care workers. Encouraging members of the public to wear face masks would inevitably lead to mass panic buying and negative stock levels. Now that worldwide supply of surgical and non-surgical masks can meet demand, the official guidance is changing towards the public wearing them.
We also have a clearer understanding of the virus compared to when it first surfaced. We now know that asymptomatic transmission of the virus is possible. It is not therefore a case of only wearing a mask if you have symptoms, it is the only way to ensure that those carrying the virus without showing any symptoms do not pass it on to others as they go about their daily life.
What else have we learnt about COVID-19 that now supports the use of face masks?
As well as asymptomatic carriers, there are also “pre-symptomatic” carriers of the virus: studies have found that viral load actually peaks in the days prior to symptoms appearing. Ultimately, wearing a face mask protects others from catching the virus from you before your symptoms develop and you know that you must self-isolate. Since there are both asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic carriers, you can’t always tell who is infected or if the disease will develop symptomatically, so mask wearing is both precautionary and necessary.
It is still being debated whether viral load affects the severity of symptoms, their duration or a patient’s medical outcome, but if this is the case then the use of face masks becomes even more crucial for pre-symptomatic carriers.
Is it true that wearing a face mask only protects others, and in fact it does not prevent you from catching the virus?
It was previously thought that face masks only protect others, not the wearer, however a new study from Oxford’s Leverhulme Centre for Demographic Science suggests that masks made of adequate material with a sufficient level of filtration, but that also fit correctly, do provide some protection for the wearer. It is all about the spread of infectious droplets, and face masks do provide a form of barrier to their entry and exit, even partially. It should be noted however, that valved masks do not block exhaled droplets.
The OmniProtect face mask offers even greater protection for both the wearer and those they come into contact with, as the fabric on both the inner and outer layers of the mask is treated with antimicrobial technology, meaning that viruses and bacteria are destroyed when exhaled by the wearer and also when they reach the wearer from other people or from the atmosphere.
The use of face masks really needs to be a collective effort from everyone to be effective. The more people who wear face masks and minimise the transmission of the virus, the less virus there is circulating in the community, therefore reducing everyone’s infection risk.
In the absence of a vaccine, the widespread use of face masks by the general public, along with increased handwashing and hygiene practices, could be the most effective non-medical intervention that we have. It may take a cultural shift and change in public perception to make mask-wearing “normal” (or perhaps just about tolerable), but when human lives are at risk, isn’t it worth a try?