If you had been looking at the Coronavirus, or COVID-19 outbreak without the sort of seriousness it deserves, you might want to change tack now. At the time of writing this, there are more than 93,000 confirmed cases of Coronavirus around the world, with as many as 124 cases already confirmed in the US. China continues to be the worst hit with 80,270 cases in Mainland China, 100 in Hong Kong and 10 reported from Macau, according to official figures. There are now 28 confirmed COVID-19 cases in India as well, including in Delhi and Jaipur, with some people under watch in Bengaluru and Agra, who may have come in contact with the infected. While the Coronavirus outbreak is now bordering on officially becoming a global pandemic, there is a huge debate raging on about face masks. Whether you should wear them, and whether they protect you against the Coronavirus. Here is what we know so far.
We usually link the use of face masks with air pollution and how to protect yourself against the bad air quality when outdoors. That is particularly true for Asia, and even more so for India which has some of the most polluted countries in the world. However, with the airborne COVID-19 floating around unseen, could a mask help? Let us first look at the type of masks that you can buy. Face masks, or pollution masks as they are commonly known as, are designed to catch large and small airborne contaminants, some seen and some unseen. You can buy what are referred to as surgical masks, the ones that are rated N95 and the ones that are rated N99. All three are commonly available at offline and online stores.
You Didn’t Know This About COVID-19, Did You?
And here is what we know about the Coronavirus virions. The New England Journal of Medicine released a report which suggested that scientists were at a consensus that the diameter of the 2019-nCoV particles varied from about 60 to 140 nm—that means as small as 0.06 microns all the way to 0.14 microns. The virus particles had quite distinctive spikes, about 9 to 12 nm, and gave virions the appearance of a solar corona. The research was done on Coronavirus patients in China and funded by the National Key Research and Development Program of China and the National Major Project for Control and Prevention of Infectious Disease in China.
This makes it is clear, even the largest Coronavirus virions are smaller than the particles that most N95 and N99 face masks can filter out—which is 0.3 microns. So, there you have it then, stop buying face masks and that’s that? this is what they do.
Here is How Face Masks Work; You Probably Didn’t Know This Either
The typical N95 and N99 masks are designed to keep airborne particles, pollutants, viruses and allergens out, as you breathe in air. You may have also seen a lot of people wearing what look like surgical masks and walking along on the street or in public transport. The thing is, surgical masks are actually designed for the opposite—to keep any droplets or pathogens from a doctor’s respiratory system from escaping and touching any surface nearby or infecting a patient. You wear a surgical mask on the street, and it will make no difference, unless you are infected—and that way you could protect others. But would you know. These surgical masks should be worn by anyone who already has a cough, cold or sore throat, till they are tested either way for the COVID-19 infection.
But hang on for a moment: All The Confused Messaging Has People Panicking
The messaging from the medical community has been incredibly confusing thus far. Yes, they say we shouldn’t buy masks because they don’t do anything to protect against the Coronavirus, but at the same time, say that these are very essential for those who are taking care of Coronavirus patients. Let us take this tweet by the US surgeon general Jerome M. Adams, “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!” This is the sort of confused messaging that is sending people around the world into even more panic. People don’t know how masks won’t work for them but will work for healthcare professionals. Then there is the other opinion. “There's little harm in it,” said Eric Toner, a scientist at John Hopkins Center for Health Security, while speaking with Business Insider.
Look, here is what the medicine experts are trying to say—a face mask filters out particles larger than 0.3 microns while even the largest Coronavirus diameter is 0.14 microns. Since, 0.14 microns is smaller than 0.3 microns, an airborne Coronavirus particle will shoot straight through the face mask and into the wearer’s respiratory system. And then it is party time. For the Coronavirus.
But if Only Things Were This Black And White.
Wearing a face mask provides absolutely no guarantee that it will provide 100% protection against getting an infection. But you need to understand how the Coronavirus spreads. The World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines state, “when someone coughs or sneezes, they spray small liquid droplets from their nose or mouth which may contain virus. If you are too close, you can breathe in the droplets, including the COVID-19 virus if the person coughing has the disease.” Additionally, “Droplets spread virus. By following good respiratory hygiene, you protect the people around you from viruses such as cold, flu and COVID-19.” That, and that Coronavirus can also spread when someone touches a surface where cough or sneeze drops may already reside, and then touches their eyes, nose or ears. People, stop touching your face.
Wearing a face mask is certainly not an iron-clad guarantee that you won’t get sick. But the thing is, these viruses can transmit through droplets or attach themselves to tiny particles which you may breathe in—and it is deadly if you breathe in droplet or a particle sneezed or coughed out by an infected person. Remember, masks are very effective when it comes to capturing droplets, which is considered the primary transmission method of the Coronavirus.
“Droplets spread virus. By following good respiratory hygiene, you protect the people around you from viruses such as cold, flu and COVID-19” - WHO
It takes as many as 14 days for the Coronavirus symptoms to show, sometimes even more. In that period, the carrier of the virus and the friends and family and colleagues of that carrier would not have a clue—and the virus could spread via a simple cough or sneeze. Public transport, large gatherings, public places and even fleeting interactions can be the perfect ground for the Coronavirus to spread. This is why wearing a mask is still a very good idea.
The Donald Trump administration in the US has contacted American multi-national manufacturing company 3M to supply as many as 30 million masks a month, as confirmed by Vice-President Mike Pence while speaking with the media. In China, companies that were otherwise not producing face masks, have shifted focus to making these instead. Foxconn, the manufacturing company well known for churning out tech products including the Apple iPhones has now dedicated some of its production lines to manufacturing masks, with the target of producing 2 million masks a day.
Get a Mask, Don’t Hoard a Life’s Worth of Supply: Be Sensible
This is exactly the reason why the WHO, the CDC and others are insisting that masks are essential for health care workers and for anyone who is caring for someone who may be infected. Expand that into a wider situation as illustrated above and imagine a scenario where someone next to you on the metro ride home coughs and you unknowingly breathe in the droplets. Or a colleague, a friend or even a passerby—that is where a mask is very essential. It is hard to chalk off any situation in your daily life as risk-free, where there is no scope of catching the infection.The WHO also has a helpful guide on how best to wear masks for a tight seal fit, as do the CDC and many others. You might do well to follow that advice on making the mask work best for you, and also how to safely store it or dispose it, to reduce the risk of spreading infection. And while you are at it, wash your hands regularly with soap, use hand sanitizers and avoid touching your face. “Clean your hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or wash them with soap and water. Avoid touching your eyes, mouth, or nose,” says the NSW Ministry of Health, Australia.