COVID-19, Hamlet and You

Some science on face coverings

10 Apr 2020 | 10:49

Hamlet had it easy. His questioning whether or not to be applied only to his very own personal family problems plus his fear of death or the religious damnation of a suicide.

To mask or not to mask is trickier. Now that the CDC has officially recommended that you wear a mask when you're outside, the questions are: Do you wear one to protect yourself? Do you wear it to protect others? And the Big One: Is a plain fabric mask, like the homemade ones so many are wearing now, truly protective?

In the past month, the answers to these questions have bounced all over the political and scientific landscape. Finally, there are actual studies beginning to produce scientifically reliable answers: Yes, no, and the irritating but inevitable maybe.

Got a cold? The flu? COVID-19? You shed viruses every time you sneeze or cough. In laboratory experiments with the believe-it-or-not Gesundheit II machine, Don Milton, of the University of Maryland School of Public Health and his colleagues at the University of Hong Kong compared the amount of virus exhaled with and without a surgical mask. Their conclusion? Masks reduce the number of detectible flu and coronaviruses, but not rhinoviruses, the ones responsible for about half of all common colds.

Household Materials

Given even the hint of good news, and because surgical masks are in short supply, a number of scientists began testing widely available fabrics, from T-shirts to pillowcases, to see which worked best at screening out coronaviruses. Suffice it to say that the virus is very, very small particle whose size is described in nanometers one of which equals one billionth of a meter or .000000000254 inches. One researcher in India reportedly captured a picture of the COVID-19 virus showing it to be about 75 nanometers wide. That’s about ten thousand times smaller than the width of a single 75,000 nanometer-wide human hair.

At the Missouri University of Science and Technology, environmental engineer Yang Wang decided to test a few common household materials for homemade masks. While all the fabrics tested appeared to let some viruses through, the least leaky seemed to be pillowcases, with 600-count ones at the top of the list.

Back east, at Wake Forest Baptist Health in North Carolina, anesthesiologist Scott Segal, M.D., found that while a simple layer of cotton over flannel worked well, the best performers were two-layer masks of tightly woven “quilter’s cotton” or batik fabric. When you are ready to make your own mask, the CDC has a video to show you how to assemble an effective one: https://www.businessinsider.com/how-to-make-face-mask-at-home-no-sewing-coronavirus-2020-4.

Finally, the mask of the future, however, may not be fabric at all.

Dibakar Bhattacharyya, University of Kentucky Alumni Chair Professor of Chemical Engineering, is at work developing a "functionalized membrane” face mask packed with substances such as enzymes to capture and deactivate the virus.

That’s at least six months away. For the moment, experts agree that when handled properly, the cloth mask can provide some protection.

Just remember: it's an add-on.

Not a substitute for washing your hands.

And keeping your distance.

Carol Ann Rinzler is the author of more than 20 books on health, including "Nutrition for Dummies."