How effective are different types of masks?

A farm in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
A farm in Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

“Face masks work best to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 when everyone wears one. But experts say it is still worth wearing a mask to protect yourself, even if no one else does,” says an article in the Canadian Medical Association Journal (CMAJ March 16, 2022) written by Lauren Vogel, news editor with CMAJ.

Our government has given in to public demand for freedom from wearing a mask to protect oneself and protect others. If you go to a party or shopping mall then almost nobody is wearing a mask. You go to a popular busy restaurant which is packed with people and nobody is wearing a mask.

There is a price to pay for this kind of freedom – more people are starting to get sick. People who are fully vaccinated with third and fourth booster shots are getting sick.

A friend of mine, who had his fourth COVID-19 vaccine shot three months ago recently came down with all the classic symptoms of COVID-19 infection. After two weeks of isolation, he is still recovering. What people forget is that vaccines do not provide 100 percent protection.

Third dose of vaccine is 95 percent effective against hospitalization and death. It also brings vaccine efficacy to 97 percent for Delta and 61 percent for Omicron. What about Omicron BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants? Do the current vaccines protect us from these variants?

The other thing people forget is the protection you get from COVID-19 vaccines can wane over time (4-6 months); so, booster doses are necessary. Boosters can help improve protection against severe outcomes by up to 90 percent. They may also reduce the risk of post COVID-19 condition.

What kind of mask is worth using to protect yourself and others?

Wearing a mask is very important especially if you are indoor in a crowded place with poor ventilation.

I will take the liberty of going back to Lauren Vogel’s article titled, “Is one-way masking enough?” She makes the following points:

  1. Quality of mask: Better quality masks offered greater protection. Wearing an N95 or KN95 respirator lowered the odds of infection by 83 percent, whereas wearing a surgical mask or cloth mask lowered the odds by 66 percent and 56 percent, respectively.
  2. Indoor public settings: Recent data from the United States shows that people who always wore a face mask in indoor public settings were less likely to test positive for SARS-CoV-2 than those who never wore a mask. Crowded indoor environments with poor ventilation is very risky.
  3. Mask fitting: Properly fitted N95 respirators should filter at least 95 percent of virus particles. That’s notably better than the protection offered by universal masking with cloth and surgical masks, which would have fallen on the lower end of 75 – 91 percent.
  4. Other types of masks: Surgical masks filtered 47 – 50 percent of particles, while a simple cotton mask filtered 17 – 20 percent. Cloth or surgical masks are very poor in protecting the wearer or other people.

We need to find more effective masks which are affordable and available to all levels of population. Our fight for survival is not over yet. Governments could also offer clearer guidance on separating good quality masks from the sea of unregulated and sometimes counterfeit options. Some European countries are making it mandatory for people to use high-quality masks and respirators that block 90 – 95 percent of particles.

Wearing a mask is like wearing a seat belt in a vehicle. It saves lives.

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