Both the US and Australian governments are advising people that masks don’t work as protection against the COVID-19 coronavirus, but is this true?
Half-truths are as bad as outright lies, and both governments are guilty of a dangerous half-truth here because they’re being very vague and non-specific in their advice, making it worse than useless. So what is the actual truth?
Surgical Masks vs Fine Particulate Respirators
Masks are not all the same, they are designed for different purposes, so it’s important to use the right one!
- Surgical masks are only designed to prevent large-particle droplets which may contain pathogens from reaching your mouth and nose, and don’t form an airtight seal. They WILL NOT completely protect against airborne viruses and bacteria, and only offer limited protection against COVID-19 coronavirus transmission.
- According to Australia/NZ and US national safety standards, respirator masks rated as P2 and P3 in Australia (N95 and N99 in the US) are what must be used when dealing with bacteria and viruses, so these masks WILL protect against COVID-19 coronavirus transmission.
To provide further explanation, I’ll quote my previous article “Choosing a Disposable Dust Mask Respirator for Air Pollution and Smoke Protection” :
“P2 rated masks are the preferred choice for protection against smoke particles in the air because they are a bit cheaper and easier to breathe through than P3 rated masks. A P2 rated mask/respirator is an AS/NZS1716 rated particle filter for use with mechanically and thermally generated particles (such as smoke), and are also the recommended type for use for infectious diseases. P2 filters are known to effectively capture particles in the sub micron range and are suitable for very small particulates such as bacteria or viruses (although these are normally associated into or onto larger droplets or aerosols, for example, when people sneeze). The USA’s equivalent rating for P2 respirators is N95.
A mask only works well if it fits well on your face, as any gaps between the mask and your skin will allow the pollutants to enter your nasal passage and cause health issues. Make sure any mask fits well and makes a good air seal, especially around the bridge of the nose. Facial hair, such as a beard, will prevent a good seal against the skin.
The above information was sourced from the respirator manufacturer’s website, and it is clear from the Australia/NZ and US national safety standards that masks with these ratings are specifically designed for use against bacteria and viruses.
Downplaying the Threat or Being Condescending to US Citizens?
According to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA):
“For the general American public, there is no added health benefit to wear a respiratory protective device (such as an N95 respirator), and the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low.”
Apparently one reason for the FDA discouraging the use of effective N95 respirator masks is because these masks need to fit well to form a seal around the face!
The suggestion that the immediate health risk from COVID-19 is considered low is preposterous, it’s a been declared a global epidemic by the World Health Organization and the United States declared a state of emergency on Friday 13th of March.
I’m not surprised that the Pew Research Centre reports that in 2019 only 17% of Americans say they can trust the government to do what is right. It looks like the US government has no faith in its citizen’s intelligence!
Here are some basic instructions on how to fit a respirator properly by the company 3M:
Please feel free to download these instructions in pdf format for your safety.
If Masks Don’t Work, Why Do Chinese People Wear Them?
It’s curious how the Chinese have managed to contain the COVID-19 coronavirus outbreak in Wuhan, yet the west doesn’t seem too interested in what they did to contain it. From all the video footage of the crisis in China, it was apparent that everyone was wearing masks. Were they surgical masks? No, the masks sold on the Chinese online superstores are P2 (N95) rated masks.
I checked a Chinese site and selected a random mask, the one pictured below.
Checking the specifications, they list it as follows:
Protection Level: KN95=N95=FFP2
In classic Chinglish, the description states “Adjustable nose clip strip, no scraping & air leakage prevention,tightly fit the face & filter well”. Basically, what they’re saying is that the mask seals well around the face and the strip under the adjustable nose clip sits snugly and prevents air leakage.
Are P2/N95 Masks the Solution?
Yes and no. Proper P2/N95 respirator masks are uncomfortable to wear for 8 hours doing hard physical work in the heat of summer, I know from experience from wearing them for smoke protection during the Australian bushfire events. Tight fitting masks may cause some bruising to the face, for me it was slight bruising at the bridge of my nose only after the hottest day, but the redness it cleared overnight.
According to the World Health Organization:
“The disease can spread from person to person through small droplets from the nose or mouth which are spread when a person with COVID-19 coughs or exhales. These droplets land on objects and surfaces around the person. Other people then catch COVID-19 by touching these objects or surfaces, then touching their eyes, nose or mouth. People can also catch COVID-19 if they breathe in droplets from a person with COVID-19 who coughs out or exhales droplets. This is why it is important to stay more than 1 meter (3 feet) away from a person who is sick.”
A properly rated mask will prevent the inhalation of fine droplets suspended in the air that carry the virus, which can stay active for almost 3 hours.
According to testing conducted by the National Institutes of Health, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), UCLA and Princeton University, COVID-19 can survive in the air for nearly 3 hours, and remain viable on surfaces such as plastic and steel for up to three days and cardboard surfaces for up to 24 hours.
Without safety glasses, droplets can land on the eye and infect a person that way, which is why all the factories in China selling respirators are also selling safety glasses, but a mask alone will drastically reduce the risk of infection via inhalation.
What Advice Does the World Health Organization Give about Surgical Masks?
In the advice below quoted directly from the World Health Organization (WHO), they are discussing the use of medical (surgical) masks, not P2/N95 respirators, and they are suggesting that people infected with COVID-19 should wear them to reduce the spread of the virus.
Should I wear a mask to protect myself?
Only wear a mask if you are ill with COVID-19 symptoms (especially coughing) or looking after someone who may have COVID-19. Disposable face mask can only be used once. If you are not ill or looking after someone who is ill then you are wasting a mask. There is a world-wide shortage of masks, so WHO urges people to use masks wisely.
WHO advises rational use of medical masks to avoid unnecessary wastage of precious resources and mis-use of masks (see Advice on the use of masks).
The most effective ways to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 are to frequently clean your hands, cover your cough with the bend of elbow or tissue and maintain a distance of at least 1 meter (3 feet) from people who are coughing or sneezing.
How to put on, use, take off and dispose of a mask?
- Remember, a mask should only be used by health workers, care takers, and individuals with respiratory symptoms, such as fever and cough.
- Before touching the mask, clean hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water
- Take the mask and inspect it for tears or holes.
- Orient which side is the top side (where the metal strip is).
- Ensure the proper side of the mask faces outwards (the coloured side).
- Place the mask to your face. Pinch the metal strip or stiff edge of the mask so it moulds to the shape of your nose.
- Pull down the mask’s bottom so it covers your mouth and your chin.
- After use, take off the mask; remove the elastic loops from behind the ears while keeping the mask away from your face and clothes, to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces of the mask.
- Discard the mask in a closed bin immediately after use.
- Perform hand hygiene after touching or discarding the mask – Use alcohol-based hand rub or, if visibly soiled, wash your hands with soap and water.
Hopefully the information that I have provided in this article is of help to readers during this global pandemic crisis.
For more information on protective face masks, please see the following articles:
- Why You Should Wear a Mask for COVID-19 Coronavirus, Debunking The Bad Science!
- How To Safely Put on, Use and Remove a Face Mask to Protect Against COVID-19 Coronavirus