Can Masks Actually Protect Us From COVID-19?

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With more than 73,000 people confirmed to have contracted the new COVID-19 virus and nearly 2,000 deaths around the world (and growing), you constantly read and hear about the importance of protecting yourself from the virus through masks.

Whether it’s from news coverage, social media, or even those dreaded fear-spreading Whatsapp chats, you finally decide that it’s time. You rush to the nearest supermarket or health store but alas — resistance:

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Face masks seem to be out of stock everywhere. You try multiple stores, even across a few days, but you’re always met with the same message – face masks are sold out.

Does this sound like a familiar situation?

One of the most common images that reflects the current coronavirus situation across the globe is people in face masks. Especially in Singapore, masks are not only sold out online and offline – they have been sold at exorbitant prices of up to $10,000 for masks, as everyone scrambles to protect themselves against the COVID-19 which can spread between people who are in close contact (about 180cm from each other).

This typically happens through respiratory droplets, produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

But just how effective are face masks against preventing the spread of COVID-19? Limited effectiveness, say medical experts. Many of the masks people wear are actually doing little to protect them.

Many Masks, Few Differences

Face masks are designed to catch large contaminants and particles and the most common two types are surgical face masks and the N95 respirators.

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These days, it’s almost impossible to be outside and not see someone wearing a surgical face mask.

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Currently the most popular of the lot, surgical masks are designed to keep droplets and splatter from passing from a person’s mouth to nearby surfaces or people.

These simple nose and mouth protectors are made of thin paper fleece. If the wearer of the mask coughs, or sneezes, most of the droplets get caught in the mask.

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Touted to be the more effective masks against the COVID-19, the N95 respirators filter out most airborne particles from the surrounding air, preventing wearers from breathing in particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter.

They are also designed to fit tightly against one’s face. It filters at least 95% of airborne particles. However, these masks are uncomfortable and difficult to wear for long periods of time.

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Many seem to think that in desperate times, wearing a cloth mask is better than having no mask at all. Cloth masks are friendlier on the environment due to their washable and reusable properties.

Additionally, these masks still work when it comes to limiting water droplets from the unwell. The best part about these masks? You can even make your own according to many online sources and avoid getting involved in the existing mask-war.

How well do masks protect against COVID-19?

While the face mask industry continues to boom amid concerns of the outbreak, experts continue to emphasize that there is no reason for most people to wear face masks.

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According to a descriptive study conducted on 99 confirmed cases of COVID-19 in Wuhan, China, the coronavirus measures between .05 and 0.2 microns in diameter – compared to the N95 masks that can only protect from 0.3 microns in diameter.

That is not to say that masks are completely useless against the COVID-19. If used correctly, they help to a certain degree. While the N95 provides the highest level of protection against masks out there, it is still not foolproof – especially since there is not much concrete evidence to support the wearing of masks.

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As for the popular surgical masks, they’re not designed to provide respiratory protection and hence are “not effective protection against viruses or bacteria carried in the air”.

This is mainly because they are too loose, have no air filter, and leave the eyes exposed, says Dr David Carrington, a clinical virologist at the St George’s University of London.

The Government’s stance against Singapore’s Mask Mania

Amid government efforts to distribute four masks to every household in February 2020, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong and three other ministers took to social media to call for citizens to avoid wearing masks if they are not ill.

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National Development Minister Lawrence Wong added that the masks distributed to each household are meant to be kept as a precaution and are to be used by family members only when they’re ill and need to visit the doctor.

With the growing number of COVID-19 cases locally, Singapore continues to take efforts to improve its readiness against the potential increase in the demand for masks.

Minister Lawrence Wong announced that Singapore is looking for new sources of supply for masks and is working on developing its capabilities to manufacture these masks locally.

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While the government continues to strengthen the resilience of its supply chain, we can do our part by not adding to the wastage of resources – especially when there are other methods to undertake in protecting yourself from the COVID-19.

Masks vs Hand-Washing

With health experts describing mask wearing as “completely understandable” but ultimately unwarranted, you might wonder how else you can protect yourself from the virus, if it’s not by stocking up on masks.

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The “most important” way to halt the spread of the COVID-19 is to simply — wash your hands, according to the professor who headed the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global response to the deadly SARS virus in 2003.

This is partly because people who wear masks may be touching them with unclean hands that they then use to touch their noses or mouths. All masks are of little use if the most important hygienic principle is neglected.

For example, once you’re home after your long ride using public transport, where you might have touched handrails and handles, it is of utmost importance that you wash your hands thoroughly before touching any part of your face – whether or not you were wearing a face mask.

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Experts advise washing your hands thoroughly for at least 20 seconds. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth with unwashed hands, especially if you’re outdoors and have touched other surfaces.

Regularly disinfect your surroundings at home and items you always touch, such as your phone.

While wearing masks might give a false sense of security, try not to become lax about taking other protective steps such as maintaining good hand hygiene. Remember, the best defence against the virus might just be some good, old-fashioned hand washing.