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Do facemasks really work for COVID-19?

Updated: Jul 1, 2020

This is absolutely the most frequent question I’m getting these days, and really its not a super simple answer.


The only thing simple about this is that anyone working in a hospital (or in any other healthcare setting/ front line workers) need to have medical grade facemasks available for them... at all times.

For the rest of us, things are a lot less clear cut, especially because there’s a huge shortage of these masks, so we can't be online ordering surgical grade facemasks “just in case”. There are people out there who need them, without them, their lives are literally on the line.


It also very much depends on what we mean by "do they work". Do they work from protecting you from the virus? Or do they work from protecting you from giving it to other people?


First up I want to say that there really isn’t anything magic about standing 2m away from someone you are interacting with directly.


If you stand talking to someone who is infected with the virus, whether its 3 feet or 6 feet, there’s going to be some risk of infection.


In an ideal world, droplets come out of peoples mouth and usually go on for about 1m before falling to the floor. But the real world is messy, a droplet comes out of someone’s mouth and then there’s a lot of variability involved. Some of the smaller droplets might escape and travel a little further, but the key is, the further away you are from the source, the more diluted the air – so the less risk they post.

THAT IS WHY PHYSICAL DISTANCE IS SO CRUCIAL.


I’m constantly airing on the side of caution, 2m, to me, doesn’t seem far enough. I’ll be as far away from people as I can be for the rest of this pandemic.


In 2008 there was a study on homemade facemasks, surgical-grade materials performed best, but then they also looked at more common cotton fabrics ( the same as your t-shirts) and they had a filtration of about 50-70%, so they might be providing additional benefit to you, but probably will only have a marginal effect.


The emails I get every day are from people who are worried about homemade face masks because they're worried they might not work. Increasing studies are showing that face masks actually might be encouraging people to take risks that they shouldn’t be taking because, hey, they're protected, right? Let's just go and talk to my elderly neighbour, and stand a little closer because they can't quite hear me. Just imagine the potential. consequences.



There’s a lot of different recommendations out there for a number of reasons, but there really isn’t any conclusive data that they make a big difference.


My grandad, like me, is a bit of a science geek.


We’ve been chatting about how viruses are tiny, so tiny in fact if a virus was the size of a tennis ball, we would be 500 miles tall.


So how can a piece of fabric from your t-shirt stop that tiny virus from getting in or out? To be honest, I didn’t have the answer, that's why I've written this post.


When we start going back to work again, it's likely we will all be in situations where social distancing just won't be possible. If you don’t have a mask then you’re pretty much naked, so wearing a face cloth mask, may give you added protection. Is not wearing a mask, with this little data, a risk you’re willing to take?


It’ll be interesting to see if the widespread use of facemasks will make a difference to how many people are getting this virus, but the pandemic is serious, potentially lethal to a lot of us, and anything we can do to prevent transmission should be encouraged.


Face masks don't make you invincible, so be sensible.

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