Article by Alan Fijalkowski
It has been a tumultuous few weeks, with the expanse of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, now known as COVID-19, growing exponentially to many of our surprises. The rapid change in our much-accustomed way of life has sparked numerous facets of change among ourselves and our communities. Despite the exhaustive amount of confusion over how bad it has gotten, where it may be going, and when it will all be over, the most encouraging takeaway from it all is that a majority of the populous is wanting to help. There will always be those who prioritize differently than most of us, and the true nature of so many individuals and companies have been clearly presented during this test. Despite it all, there is still an abundance of offers to help in whatever way can be accomplished.
But this attempt to help and be a part of the solution also exemplifies the profound and detrimental capability of incorrect or improper information. We are well past the era when published information was fact-checked, validated, peer-reviewed and cited with editorial gate-keeping and overall integrity. Nowadays, anything goes in the world of the internet, and the trophy goes to whomever gets to be either the first with information or the one with the most shares. The ability to develop official-looking websites or info graphics expand on the illusion of reliability, and we begin to experience what those of us in public health call “an infodemic.”
Information can only be valuable when it is applied to the intended scope of use, as well as understood in the correct context of applicability. When you fail to critically review the information and find what scope or context it is intended for, it winds up failing the situation or even hurting it. There is so much misinterpreted data being shared that it is impossible to address it all at once. However, we can take the first steps by looking for these two primary factors: what is the scope of the information, and is it being applied in the correct context?
Right now, we still have a difficult time ahead. One thing that remains clear is that we are all in this together and need each other to get through it. We will have our time to address the rest and we will. Until that time comes, let’s take a look at what we are doing now, and how to ensure we are doing our best to be proactive in this fight.
The most prominent topic that has been on the agenda lately is the use of face coverings while in public. On April 3, Governor Polis issued his statement requesting that anyone who leaves their home wear some form of cloth face covering. This was not a mandatory declaration or order, but a concerned request. This eventually increased to what is now an executive order for essential business workers to wear them. The need for cloth masks became an instantaneous demand, and the crafty people of this state certainly answered the call — some well before the request from Governor Polis.
But the request was not exempt from its own share of criticism and misinterpretation. As a result, the state has become burdened with the stereotypical social media police and home-research duty experts on what is and is not the best practice for wearing and producing masks. Arguments over materials to use, efficacy and comparison to an N95 have created new conflict around the web when, in reality, none of it even matters. Why? Scope and context.
There is no argument that the use of a home-produced face mask will help slow the spread of the virus, but the confusion seems to run in the method and purpose behind the mask. Many people have begun to criticize and even insult not only the Governor but other Coloradans on social media — citing that they are not utilizing proper coverings. This is usually with regard to the neck-gaiter style wraps that are seen being worn around town. The result of that observance has led others in a quest to produce a more efficient and effective mask — utilizing different materials and even claiming to provide one with the same elements that an N95 is made from, sourced with local and commonly available items. Additionally, many people have also shared a visible info graphic that portrays the efficiency of the different masks and materials, describing the commonly used fabrics and cloths with zero effectiveness, and the N95 as 95% effective.
While the raw data is technically accurate, the scope and context for the data are not used properly. In the most unrefined aspect, the N95 mask is also 0% effective at filtering out this virus. By definition and lab-proven data, the N95 is 95% effective (hence the 95) at filtering ambient particles in the surrounding air that are 0.3 microns or larger. The SARS-CoV-2 virus, when fully encapsulated in its outer lipid layer, is only around 0.125 microns in diameter. That means not even N100 filters the virus, but that’s not what the N95 or any of these masks are designed to do. The virus is not airborne, meaning it must latch to a denser medium for travel. Most commonly, this is accomplished via respiratory droplets, which average around 1.0 microns in size range. Dust, dirt and other pollutants are other vehicles for the virus to travel. That is is why the N95-N100 is still effective, which is the context this data was meant for.
The request for cloth face coverings was not and still is not intended to perform filtration for protection. Because the respiratory droplets are heavier than air, they must fall to the ground. The “six-foot rule” was implemented due to the estimated maximum travel distance of respiratory droplets from an infected person to pose an immediate risk to others. By applying any form of fabric covering, the direction of travel is more diffused than direct, as well as slowed from the surface tension resistance of the fabric. The result is a much shorter travel distance for the respiratory droplets containing the virus. This is the intended scope of the masking request.
So what is the best course of action? Which material or design should one use? The relevant truth is that it does not make a difference. People are going to try and promote statistical data on different fabric types and fitted designs, and even make claims as to the filtration efficacy of their own because they researched what materials are in a genuine N95. But the materials available to us as consumers is not only lower grade and not the same standard as used by industrial medical suppliers, but it lacks other significant components that ultimately make it useful. That is found in the different cross-layered levels of material, shaped and fitted edges to ensure a seal, and a bacteriostatic charge to encourage the attraction of particles to the mask materials. Additionally, these are lab tested for qualitative and quantitative adherence to the intended standard. Anyone who is making a mask from home and claiming any form of efficacy risks crossing a legal threshold that they most likely do not want to be in.
So what do we do? In many ways, the most straightforward answer is the best one. Find whatever is most comfortable to your face and skin, and you can tolerate wearing and breathing in for any duration of time. Even if it is not skin tight against your face, and the entirety of your tidal volume doesn’t pass through it, the laws of physics will take charge, and your exhaled air will follow the path of least resistance and travel down or out the sides. Either way, this accomplishes the intended scope of diffusing or slowing the rate and direction of travel. A complicated mask serves no purpose if it is so uncomfortable that you do not wear it. Find something comfortable, easily washable, and have several on hand so you do not saturate one with moisture. I also recommend hand washing and hang drying the masks to keep fibers taught. But the biggest takeaway is to remember that it is a mechanism of community protection, and to not get a false sense of security. Continue to wash your hands often, cover your coughs and direct coughing away from others, distance and avoid contact unless necessary, and try to stay healthy and respectful to others.