There are 2.6 million reasons why governments are issuing mandates to wear a mask. Yes, 2.6 million is the current global Covid-19 death toll. Check the current case count here.
However, there are people in the world who still refuse to wear a mask for a plethora of different reasons but the one I want to tackle in today’s blog is that some people don’t think masks really protect against Covid-19 (or any virus for that matter.) So let's dive into it.
Do Face Masks Really Protect Against Coronavirus?
To understand whether or not masks do protect against Covid-19, we first have to look at how big a single virion of Covid-19 actually is and then compare it to a mask’s Particle Filtration Efficiency or PFE.
How Big Are Viruses?
A commonly known fact is that viruses are microscopic- at least I hope it’s commonly known. Covid-19 virion range in size from 50-140 nanometers. To put that into perspective, a single strand of human DNA is 2.5 nanometers in diameter. So now how does this size stack up to a mask’s PFE?
The most commonly known mask PFE is that of an N95 respirator, which has a 95% PFE. Medically graded, fine particle filtration masks are tested and certified using PM 0.3 aerosols meaning the smallest particles in these aerosol tests are Particulate Matter that are 0.3 microns (or 300 nanometers) in size.
As stated before, a Covid-19 virion can range from 50-140 nanometers in size- which is smaller than the 300 nm aerosol particles masks are tested and certified with. However, this doesn’t render masks useless just yet- we then have to take a look at how viruses are spread.
How Are Viruses Spread?
Viruses are strands of RNA or DNA and cannot replicate unless absorbed by our body’s cells. A virus cannot survive outside of a host body after a certain period of time because it’s outer protective layer, called a capsid, will deteriorate and the virus along with it. This means that viruses are spread through close contact for an extended period of time with a person who has contracted the virus.
Droplets through a cough, sneeze or a heavy breath are the most common ways a person can spread a virus to another. These droplets range in size from 20 - 500 microns (20,000 - 500,000 nanometers) -which is well covered by a mask that has a 95% PFE of 0.3 Microns.
To contain a cough, sneeze, or heavy breath to a contaminated person, that person must cover their mouth and nose. What better way to cover one’s mouth and nose when they suspect they might have contracted a virus? You guessed it: by wearing a mask.
Risk Reduction NOT Absolute Prevention
Many will argue that because viruses are extremely small, there’s really no effective method to avoid contracting one and such wearing a mask is futile and unnecessary. However, masks were not designed as a method of absolute prevention but rather a method of risk reduction.
Risk reduction by wearing a mask can be best compared to the use of sexual contraceptives. People understand that the use of sexual contraceptives is not absolute prevention in creating a human life because, well, accidents happen. What’s more important is that the risk of accidents happening is severely reduced- no matter how many times the deed is done so long as the contraceptives are used.
Countries that immediately imposed mandates for its citizens to wear a mask now see some of the lowest case numbers and death rates from Covid-19. When news broke out about a possible pandemic, Taiwan issued a mask mandate as early as January of 2020. As of today (March 9th, 2021) they have had only 976 cases and a death toll of 10. Vietnam issued a country-wide regulation for its citizens to wear masks on March 16th, 2020. They currently have only 2,524 Covid-19 cases and a death toll of 35.
In contrast, it’s taken the United States quite some time to encourage its citizens to wear a mask. Public misinformation, contradicting mandates, and low supply of personal protective equipment has severely increased the risk of U.S. citizens contracting Covid-19. To date, the U.S. has seen 29,739,569 cases as well as a death toll of 538,534.
The Answer: Face Masks Do Protect Against Coronavirus
Advancements in technology and material composition are continually being applied to face masks. Nanofiltration, or filtration of nano-sized particles, is now being applied to face masks through a method called electrospinning. This method creates a nonwoven pattern of nanofibers with smaller pores to catch smaller sized particles. This technology is revolutionizing the masks industry by the way it achieves higher filter efficiencies of smaller particles to combat the spread of harmful particles.
To sum it all up, face masks do protect against Coronavirus. However, they aren’t the only way to combat the spread of it. The "Three W’s in warding Covid-19” are Wearing a mask, Washing your hands, and Watching your distance. In this interview with the University of California San Francisco, infectious disease specialist Robin Chin-Hong states “of the three, wearing a mask is the most important.”