Explaining the role of masks fighting COVID-19

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Dr. James S. Waters, Associate Professor of Biology at Providence College, responded to questions submitted by the North Star Reporter on the wearing of masks to combat COVID-19.

Please explain how masks help in crowded situations (such as schools)

Masks are like a filter, as air moves across the fabric, some substances are blocked. Some of the things that will not easily cross the fabric of a mask include water droplets and particles. Since viruses and bacteria can survive traveling through the air within microscopic water droplets, blocking these can prevent the spread of infection. The movement of gasses such as oxygen and carbon dioxide are not blocked by fabric masks.

What difference will they make on their own (without other measures such as social distancing)?

If you think about the crowded conditions of a hospital operating room, there is no possibility for doctors and nurses to social distance while treating a patient, but they wear masks both to protect themselves from inhaling aerosolized substances from the patient and also to protect the patient from being infected by any virus or bacteria carried by the healthcare professionals.

Our bodies, even when perfectly clean and healthy, are surrounded by and filled with thousands of kinds of bacteria and viruses. Most of these are harmless and many of these are thought to contribute to our health in a positive way. But even while our skin may normally be covered with bacteria such as E. coli or Staphylococcus, when we’re injured, we still make an effort to prevent these microbes from entering our blood and causing an internal infection, that’s why we use Neosporin and band-aids. Similarly, masks are not 100% perfectly effective, but they represent one of many potential layers to protect our community’s health.

I’ve heard in the past that schools haven’t been a strong vector for the virus. Is this the case?

When the pandemic first hit in 2020, our students were sent to learn from home. During the 2020-2021 school year, students learning in-person were required to wear masks (at least inside buildings). Although it is not clear how much testing or monitoring was done, if it is true that schools were not hotspots for transmission, it is likely at least in part thanks to students, staff, and teachers all wearing masks, social distancing, and washing hands.

We also need to recognize that the virus spreading across the world right now is not the same virus that we encountered when the pandemic first hit in 2020. The first wave of the virus was relatively more dangerous to older members in our community (and others as well), but the new variants appear to pose a more significant health risk to children and others who have not been vaccinated.

Would allowing students to be unmasked if they’ve had their vaccination be OK or too much of a risk?

It’s not possible to easily answer how much of a risk is too much; how many children should need to be hospitalized or G-d forbid die to justify a mask mandate? We can’t answer these questions, but we know that masks can prevent transmission and infection. A vaccinated individual, and especially one who wears a mask, is less likely to contract the new variant. However, individuals who are vaccinated and who contract the delta variant can spread it just as easily as someone who is unvaccinated.

How often should masks be changed/washed?

Current guidance suggests that cloth masks should be changed and washed regularly. Just as washing with soap and water is sufficient to kill the virus on our hands, washing by hand or with laundry detergent can sufficiently clean our cloth masks.

Do masks just prevent the spread of viruses or can they protect you as well?

Masking does both, it protects ourselves and others.

There’s one question that was wasn’t asked, but I think is worth considering: Will we have to wear masks forever?

The short answer is no, we will not have to wear masks forever. The longer answer is that depending on factors beyond our control and the conditions in our region, there may be limited periods of time when masking is important and other times when our precautions can be relaxed. As a community, the more agile and responsive we can be to the recommendations of public health officials, the sooner we will be free to enjoy interacting mask free.

What is the best kind of mask to use? Do cloth masks help at all?

The best mask is a comfortable one that our children can most easily wear. There are some materials that are more or less permeable, and the better the mask fits around someone’s face the more effective it will be, but those differences are subtle compared to the much greater protections made possible by wearing a mask in the first place.