High-quality masks for better COVID-protection

As the number of Coronavirus infections worldwide crosses 106.6mn with 2.33mn deaths, scientists developing vaccines for the virus are “not clear whether or not the world needs a new set of vaccines to fight different variants of the coronavirus but scientists are working on new ones so there is no reason for alarm,” reported The Straits Times.

Though the world has witnessed thousands of mutations of the Coronavirus, the major variants as of now are the South-African, UK/Kent and Brazilian variants. The South-African variant is now dominant in 41 countries.

Scientists have warned that if indeed the original vaccines developed for the Coronavirus are not as effective against the new variants, the battle against the pandemic might prove to be longer and more expensive than expected.

However, as of now Bhutan which is procuring almost 40,000 more AstraZeneca vaccines through COVAX facility by March end seems to be on the right track. It has been proven that AstraZeneca when administered to young people suffering from a mild to moderate infection of the South African variant provides minimal protection. The risk of contracting the South African variant lowers by 22% if a person is vaccinated with AstraZeneca.

Meanwhile, the best strategy right now to combat any variants is to reduce transmission of the Coronavirus so that an exponential rise in cases will not cause a melting pot of disease.

This brings us to the health protocols including wearing facemasks, washing our hands and maintaining social distance. With the new, more transmissible variants that might spread in the country if we are not too careful, what we need is extra, more effective protection.

It has been discussed that the virus spreads many meters through the air during ordinary talking and breathing, more than through coughing, sneezing or infected surfaces. From this arises the need for extra-effective face masks. Dr. Linsey Marr, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Virginia Tech who studies airborne disease transmission has highlighted that the two chief qualities upon which the effectiveness of a face mask depend are filtration and fit.

Good filtration removes as many particles as possible while a snug fit ensures that there are no leaks of air from the sides of the mask. Small gaps that leak cause 50% reduction in the performance of a mask. The best materials for blocking small particles include non-woven polypropylene and among fabrics the best is tightly woven cotton.

A cloth mask should ideally have multiple layers with a pocket to slip in a good filter material. However, one viable option we can try out to fortify our protection is to use a double mask-a surgical-type mask which is loose on the inside to filter particles and a cloth mask on the outside to reduce leaks. Adding a layer of filtration removes 50% of particles while adding a second layer removes 75%.

However, more than two masks are not recommended for use as they compromise breathability. We must be able to breathe through the layers otherwise air will leak from the sides. One way to make sure that we are using a good mask is that when we breathe in, we should feel the mask sucking inward and when we breathe out, no air should leak.

Other alternatives like N95s and international equivalents like KN95 and FF92 are also more effective protection.

The important thing right now is to advocate our people on using the right or more effective kind of masks. The authorities should also make concerted efforts or initiate a drive to mass produce and mass distribute high quality masks.

This sounds like a minor thing, but can have major impact on containing the pandemic.