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Are masks really the saving grace we think they are? Infectious diseases experts say that relying on homemade face masks could be dangerous.

Sweden to Dr. Fauci: Homemade face masks may be dangerous

Face masks have become more than a precautionary device to deter the spread of the coronavirus. Wearing a mask has also evolved into a kind of social trend. Celebrities have posted pictures of themselves modeling cloth masks with cute prints & designs. Those exhibiting their mask seem to believe that masks are a symbol of kindness and that it would end up saving lives. 

But are masks really the saving grace everyone seems to think they are? According to the CDC, studies suggest that masks can reduce the spread of the coronavirus and protect people from infection, (particularly when people talk, cough, & sneeze.) Cloth masks can’t filter out all tiny viral particles but they can slow the distance in which they spread. 

However, an infectious disease expert from Sweden emphasized the dangers in believing that face masks are real game changers. Finally offering a differing perspective from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House’s COVID-19 figurehead, Anders Tengell, chief epidemiologist at Sweden’s Public Health Agency, expressed serious doubts that face masks are the key to fighting COVID-19. 

Facemasks aren’t magic

COVID-19 may seem similar to the seasonal flu, but it’s worse in many ways. According to Healthline, the coronavirus is more infectious than the flu and it has a much higher mortality rate – ten to forty-four times as likely. But prevention methods aren’t effective by themselves. 

Prevention methods include quarantining, social distancing, routine cleaning, as well as regular & thorough hand washing. If people only focus on wearing masks, they’re still at serious risk of infection. In fact, Anders Tengell explained:

“Face masks can be a complement to other things when other things are safely in place. But to start with having face masks and then think you can crowd your buses or your shopping malls — that’s definitely a mistake.”  

Moreover, when COVID-19 numbers go down, Tengell believes that masks aren’t all that necessary. He said, “With numbers diminishing very quickly in Sweden, we see no point in wearing a face mask in Sweden, not even on public transport.” 

Despite strong claims & instances from the CDC & WHO that everyone needs to wear a mask, Tengell finds the evidence widely unconvincing. He said that research about the effectiveness of face mask use was “astonishingly weak” and that he was surprised that studies haven’t been better at “showing what effect masks actually have.” 

While Tengell makes some bold statements, he has also faced severe scrutiny over his handling of coronavirus response. Sweden controversially resisted a lockdown which led to a higher death rate per capita when compared to neighboring countries with harsher preventative approaches. 

Homemade mask effectiveness

Doctors and other health care workers may have access to high-level respiratory protection such as respirators & surgical masks – but these aren’t available to the general public. The supply of standard commercial face masks aren’t meeting the public’s demand – especially after so many states are issuing widespread mask-use requirements. 

This means that the use of homemade masks has been studied significantly less. Most studies have only concentrated on health care workers because they are at the highest risk of exposure. Due to the lack of evidence, this begs the question – is it dangerous to assume that homemade masks are completely effective?

A collaborative article published by Cambridge tested homemade masks for the efficacy & protection during an influenza pandemic. In the study, they tested volunteers using homemade facemasks made of cotton t-shirts. Compared to surgical masks, homemade masks blocked half as many microorganisms. 

These researchers concluded that homemade masks “should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals, but it would be better than no production.” 

The CDC also emphasizes that the filtration effectiveness of cloth masks depends on the material, thread count, layers, & water resistance. All masks showed some ability to block microbial aerosols but the overall effectiveness isn’t guaranteed. 

Improper mask maintenance 

The CDC also conducted tests concerning the efficacy of cloth masks versus medical masks. Their tests repeatedly proved that infection risks were higher for cloth masks. They theorize, however, that a part of the problem with cloth masks could have to do with improper maintenance & hygiene practice.

Not washing a cloth mask daily with soap & water could allow for them to have poor performances. They can also become “moist & contaminated” without the proper care. It’s essential that face masks must be made of washable material and that the fabric can withstand high temperatures without shrinking. 

Do you wear a homemade face mask? Consider the risks and practice safe cleaning methods. 

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