CDC cites low effectiveness of nonsurgical, cloth face masks, says use only as last resort

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4 mins read
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During the COVID-19 pandemic, designer cloth face masks and neck gaiters were the fashion rage, but the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) warns Americans that cloth masks are not effective in stopping the COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) virus.

“Cloth masks have been used in healthcare and community settings to protect the wearer from respiratory infections. The use of cloth masks during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic is under debate. The filtration effectiveness of cloth masks is generally lower than that of medical masks and respirators; however, cloth masks may provide some protection if well designed and used correctly,” the CDC said last year. “Multilayer cloth masks, designed to fit around the face and made of water-resistant fabric with a high number of threads and finer weave, may provide reasonable protection. Until a cloth mask design is proven to be equally effective as a medical or N95 mask, wearing cloth masks should not be mandated for healthcare workers. In community settings, however, cloth masks may be used to prevent community spread of infections by sick or asymptomatically infected persons, and the public should be educated about their correct use.”

During a pandemic, cloth masks may be the only option available; however, they should be used as a last resort when medical masks and respirators are not available.

U.S. CENTERS FOR DISEASE CONTROL

In 2015, the CDC conducted a randomized controlled trial to compare the efficacy of cloth masks with that of medical masks and controls (standard practice) among healthcare workers in Vietnam. Rates of infection were consistently higher among those in the cloth mask group than in the medical mask and control groups. This finding suggests that risk for infection was higher for those wearing cloth masks.

“During a pandemic, cloth masks may be the only option available; however, they should be used as a last resort when medical masks and respirators are not available,’ The CDC said. “Cloth mask use should not be mandated for healthcare workers, but some may choose to use them if there are no alternatives.”

Protection is affected by proper mask use as well as by the selection of fabric and design of the masks for water resistance, filtration, and fit. Current evidence suggests that multilayered masks with water-resistant fabric, a high number of threads, and a finer weave may be more protective.

Several studies have examined filtration, but fewer have examined fit or water resistance. Surgical masks are normally rated for fluid resistance, and cloth masks should be too. Masks should be able to prevent a stream of fluid flowing at a pressure of up to 160 mm Hg from seeping through the mask and potentially into the mouth. Furthermore, the degree of fit affects effectiveness because air flows in the direction of least resistance; if gaps are present on the sides of the mask, air will flow through those gaps instead of through the mask.

You can read the full CDC report here.

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