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A Look at the Evidence on Face Masks

Two separate publications in respected journals conclude that the use of face masks can help make us safer as institutions start to re-open.

The question of face masks to slow the spread of infection has become rather controversial in recent weeks. In some parts of the world, wearing a mask in public is recognized as a sign of civic-mindedness. The slogan is “My mask protects you; your mask protects me.” In other regions, People have not gladly embraced cloth masks. 

What Is the Purpose of Cloth Face Masks?

A recent perspective in Science magazine points out that the coronavirus causing COVID-19 spreads through the air (May 27, 2020). People without symptoms can produce droplets and even aerosolized particles when they speak, laugh or sing. They don’t have to be coughing or sneezing to disperse SARS-CoV-2 into the air around them. If we are to re-open society safely, we will need to be able to identify and isolate infected people. That means lots more testing, plus contact tracing. And because people can spread infection without even realizing it, face masks can be a big help. They trap droplets and reduce the amount of aerosol that escapes. Although they are not perfect, such cloth masks can also reduce the amount of virus that gets through to a healthy person. For a clear illustration, see this link. The total amount of viral exposure makes a difference, and even a homemade cloth face mask can reduce the viral load quite a bit.

More Evidence on Face Masks:

In addition, an international group of experts has examined the evidence on face masks. They published their findings in the Annals of Internal Medicine (May 22, 2020). They acknowledge that there are no studies proving directly that cloth masks can reduce the transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Presumably, there hasn’t yet been enough time to test face masks for this particular virus. Nevertheless, they propose that substantial evidence supports the benefit of tightly fitting masks with several layers of cloth. These can reduce the dispersion of virus-carrying droplets and aerosols and also lower the likelihood that a person will breathe in many virus-laden particles.

They conclude: 

“When we apply the principles of evidence-based medicine to public policy, there is high-quality, consistent evidence that many (but not all) cloth masks reduce droplet and aerosol transmission and may be effective in reducing contamination of the environment by any virus, including SARS-CoV-2. …

“the possible benefit of a modest reduction in transmission likely outweighs the possibility of harm.”

Like other public health experts, they see face mask use as complementing, not replacing, basic infection control measures including hand washing, physical distancing (10 or 12 feet may be safer than 6) and surface disinfection. If you would like to know more about making your own face masks, there’s a link here to ConsumerLab.com. We also have information here at PeoplesPharmacy.com

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About the Author
Terry Graedon, PhD, is a medical anthropologist and co-host of The People’s Pharmacy radio show, co-author of The People’s Pharmacy syndicated newspaper columns and numerous books, and co-founder of The People’s Pharmacy website. Terry taught in the Duke University School of Nursing and was an adjunct assistant professor in the Department of Anthropology. She is a Fellow of the Society of Applied Anthropology. Terry is one of the country's leading authorities on the science behind folk remedies..
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  • Prather KA et al, "Reducing transmission of SARS-CoV-2." Science, May 27, 2020. DOI: 10.1126/science.abc6197
  • Clase CM et al, "Cloth masks may prevent transmission of COVID-19: An evidence-based, risk-based approach." Annals of Internal Medicine, May 22, 2020. https://doi.org/10.7326/M20-2567
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