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To Mask or Not to Mask

To Mask or Not to Mask

Person wearing large red face mask with white polka dots

To mask or not to mask, that is the question, or at least one of them, that all of the people who are not desert island hermits are asking themselves today.

{For the official WHO advice and instructions for correct usage of masks please visit: https://www.who.int/emergencies/diseases/novel-coronavirus-2019/advice-for-public/when-and-how-to-use-masks}


by Christina De La Rocha

The case against:

  • Masks are in such short supply, the last thing the doctors, nurses, and grocery store clerks of the world need right now is the general public snapping up every last available surgical mask (designed to keep the wearer from exhaling bacteria and liquid droplets potentially containing viruses onto other people (and their open surgical wounds)) and N95 mask (designed to prevent the wearer from inhaling bacteria and liquid droplets and any viruses contained therein) then reselling them for 10-100x their previous retail value. (An infographic detailing the difference between surgical masks and N95 masks can be found at https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/npptl/pdfs/UnderstandDifferenceInfographic-508.pdf.)
  • A little strip of cloth over a person’s mouth, whether it’s 1-ply or 2-ply or 2-ply plus a pocket holding a filter, yields more a false sense of security than protection against the inhalation of viral particles coughed on you, sneezed on you, or just generally run into because they’re hanging around in the air.
  • Masks can become contaminated from other people’s coughs and sneezes (which is kind of the point of them–to catch the potentially infectious droplets before they go up your nose or into your mouth). If contaminated masks are then taken off incorrectly or if they’re re-used, they can then infect their wearer.
  • The last thing the world needs right now is for a few billion people to rush off down to happy hour with masks on their faces thinking that as long as they’re wearing their mask, they can’t catch the virus from any of the other hundred or so people in the bar.

The case for:

  • If you are infected, the new coronavirus tends to initially congregate in your upper respiratory tract, making it super easy to expel when you breath, talk, sing, cough, and sneeze. It’s looking like you can efficiently expel viruses this way even before you have symptoms (and even if you never develop them). Thus if everyone, including the apparently healthy, wore a mask and handled it correctly, the masks would trap expelled droplets, diminishing the chances for the expeller to infect other people.

There is as yet (yet being April 2, 2020) no agreed-upon correct answer to the mask or not to mask question. Some areas, such as a number of counties in California, attempting to avoid exponential acceleration of their outbreaks are beginning to require the use of a (homemade) cloth mask for everyone venturing out into public. Meanwhile, major health organizations, such as the CDC and the WHO and some national governments (such as Germany) continue to recommend against the use of these masks by the general public.

Enter the homemade mask.

But this uncertainty has not stopped the crafters of the world from taking scissors to brightly colored t-shirts and cute quilting calicos and uploading patterns and tutorials on making your own surgical mask. Which is understandable not least for the reason that making purported personal protection equipment sure knocks the socks off of the spring cleaning, window cleaning, and War and Peace reading we’ve been doing to avoid worrying about how to pay the rent and whether or not we’re going to get sick, struggle to breathe, be totally miserable, and then die.

If you’re going to make your own mask, a good place to start is with what material you should use. Here is a useful summary, supported by actual scientific research (in a laboratory and everything). The short answer is a mask made with one layer of cotton fabric from a t-shirt or a pillowcase strikes a reasonable balance between effective filtration of bacteria and virus particles and you still being able to breathe. But don’t get too excited because the figures given when you follow the link only refer to the filtering efficiency of the cloth, they don’t take into account the air (carrying droplets and viruses) that escapes unfiltered out the sides of the masks. The other thing found by the study of the efficacy of homemade masks was that this leakage was such that what you could say of homemade surgical masks is that they are better than nothing. Note that the researchers were British and the British are not unfamiliar with damning with faint praise. In other words, the overall conclusion of the study on homemade masks was they should be used only as a last resort.

But, what the hell, why not. SARS-COV-2 (as the Covid-19 causing virus is officially known) doesn’t have the death rate of Ebola, but its outbreaks are swamping hospitals and killing people, so it may very well be time to resort to last resorts. Because they are better than nothing. Plus, as noted above, in some places, mask use has been mandated. Which brings us to the problem of how to make one.

There are patterns galore on the interwebs. We of sewing machine ownership but next to no sewing skills took two for a test drive. My general conclusions? 1- I personally like ties better than elastic ear loops. 2- Don’t bother with filter pockets; two layers of fabric is already annoying to breathe through. 3- And following on in that vein, definitely the next mask I make will be one layer of fabric only BECAUSE I LIKE TO BREATHE.

The first mask I made was a super easy pattern offered by a professional pattern designer gone freelance, offering a wide range of free patterns and, far down in the corner of her about me page, the possibility to support her with a donation.

Red face mask with blue interior lining
The inner view of the super easy face mask made without a filter pocket.

This mask was truly super easy, quick, and fun to make. It is also comfortable to wear. The adult size turned out to be too big for my face (I’m not exactly the Jolly Green Giant), but fits Spouse (average size male) perfectly. Unfortunately, however, Spouse hates this mask because the ear loops make his sticky-out ears sticky-outier (but, honestly, that’s not really the mask’s fault).

The second mask I made involved quite a bit more messing up, and I gave up on trying to sew in the elastic ear loops without sewing a good amount of their length accidentally into the seam and just sewed straps out of bias tape on along the top and bottom edges of the mask instead.

Blue cloth folded three times into the shape of a face mask
I am so not a champion sewer.

I ended up making the child’s size version, which covers my nose, mouth, and chin perfectly, but isn’t really wide enough for my face. I’ll try making the adult version next, but I will make it using only one layer of cloth instead of the proscribed two (because, as I mentioned, I LIKE TO BREATHE).

But, in truth, the next mask I try to make will probably be the more complicated one designed by the pattern designer.

Which brings me to the last point, which is, if you do start wearing masks against transmission of the new coronavirus, you need to have more than one mask because you’re going to need to either dispose of them after each use or wash them frequently. The reason for this is that if you’re breathing into them, you’re potentially filling them up with the virus particles that you don’t want to transmit to other people. And if you are walking into other people’s exhaled liquid droplets, you’re potentially collecting them on your mask and the last thing you want to do is store them there to infect yourself with. So go for it! Make one mask in every color, or for every day of the week, or to match every outfit you own. Because once you get the knack, they sew up fast, and that totally beats cleaning the bathroom again because you’ve run out of other things to do.

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