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New York Times: Double-layered cloth and the latest CDC Brief on masking

Laying out the science behind mask-wearing Linsey Marr, an expert in virus transmission at Virginia Tech says in a report in The New York Times, double-masking isn’t necessary for everyone. But for people with thin or flimsy face coverings, “if you combine multiple layers, you start achieving pretty high efficiencies” of blocking viruses from exiting and entering the airway.

Of course, there’s a trade-off: At some point, “we run the risk of making it too hard to breathe,” she said. But, the report says, there is plenty of breathing room before mask-wearing approaches that extreme.

The report says the arguments for masking span several fields of science, including epidemiology and physics. A bevy of observational studies have suggested that widespread mask-wearing can curb infections and deaths on an impressive scale, in settings as small as hair salons and at the level of entire countries. One study, which tracked state policies mandating face coverings in public, found that known Covid cases waxed and waned in near-lockstep with mask-wearing rules. Another, which followed coronavirus infections among health care workers in Boston, noted a drastic drop in the number of positive test results after masks became a universal fixture among staff. And a study in Beijing found that face masks were 79 percent effective at blocking transmission from infected people to their close contacts.

Recent work by researchers like Marr is now pinning down the basis of these links on a microscopic scale. The science, she said, is fairly intuitive: Respiratory viruses like the coronavirus, which move between people in blobs of spittle and spray, need a clear conduit to enter the airway, which is crowded with the types of cells the viruses infect. Masks that cloak the nose and mouth inhibit that invasion. The point is not to make a mask airtight, Marr said. Instead, the fibres that comprise masks create a haphazard obstacle course through which air – and any infectious cargo – must navigate.

The best masks remain N95s, which are designed with ultrahigh filtration efficiency. But they remain in short supply for health workers, who need them to safely treat patients. Layering two less specialised masks on top of each other can provide comparable protection.

Marr recommended wearing face-hugging cloth masks over surgical masks, which tend to be made with more filter-friendly materials but fit more loosely. An alternative is to wear a cloth mask with a pocket that can be stuffed with filter material, like the kind found in vacuum bags.

Other tweaks can enhance a mask’s fit, such as ties that secure the fabric around the back of the head, instead of relying on ear loops that allow masks to hang and gape. Nose bridges, which can help the top of a mask to fit more snugly, offer a protective boost as well.

The report says no mask is perfect, and wearing one does not obviate other public health measures like physical distancing and good hygiene. “We have to be honest that the best response is one that requires multiple interventions,” said Jennifer Nuzzo, a public health expert at Johns Hopkins University.

A large review on the evidence behind masking, concluded that masks are a key tool for reducing community transmission, and is “most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high.”

The New York Times reports that part of the messaging might also require more empathy, open communication and vocal acknowledgment that “people don’t enjoy wearing masks,” Nuzzo said. Without more patience and compassion, simply doubling down on restrictions to “fix” poor compliance will backfire: “No policy is going to work if no one is going to adhere.”


Study details

CDC Scientific Brief: Community Use of Cloth Masks to Control the Spread of SARS-CoV-2

CDC researchers

Published on 20 November 2020


SARS-CoV-2 infection is transmitted predominately by respiratory droplets generated when people cough, sneeze, sing, talk, or breathe. CDC recommends community use of masks, specifically non-valved multi-layer cloth masks, to prevent transmission of SARS-CoV-2. Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets (“source control”), which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others, and who are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions.1,2 Masks also help reduce inhalation of these droplets by the wearer (“filtration for personal protection”). The community benefit of masking for SARS-CoV-2 control is due to the combination of these effects; individual prevention benefit increases with increasing numbers of people using masks consistently and correctly.

Source Control to Block Exhaled Virus
Multi-layer cloth masks block release of exhaled respiratory particles into the environment,3-6 along with the microorganisms these particles carry.7,8 Cloth masks not only effectively block most large droplets (i.e., 20-30 microns and larger)9 but they can also block the exhalation of fine droplets and particles (also often referred to as aerosols) smaller than 10 microns ;3,5 which increase in number with the volume of speech10-12 and specific types of phonation.13 Multi-layer cloth masks can both block up to 50-70% of these fine droplets and particles3,14 and limit the forward spread of those that are not captured.5,6,15,16 Upwards of 80% blockage has been achieved in human experiments that have measured blocking of all respiratory droplets,4 with cloth masks in some studies performing on par with surgical masks as barriers for source control.3,9,14

Filtration for Personal Protection
Studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration, including filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns. The relative filtration effectiveness of various masks has varied widely across studies, in large part due to variation in experimental design and particle sizes analyzed. Multiple layers of cloth with higher thread counts have demonstrated superior performance compared to single layers of cloth with lower thread counts, in some cases filtering nearly 50% of fine particles less than 1 micron .14,17-29 Some materials (e.g., polypropylene) may enhance filtering effectiveness by generating triboelectric charge (a form of static electricity) that enhances capture of charged particles18,30 while others (e.g., silk) may help repel moist droplets31 and reduce fabric wetting and thus maintain breathability and comfort.

Human Studies of Masking and SARS-CoV-2 Transmission
Data regarding the “real-world” effectiveness of community masking are limited to observational and epidemiological studies.
An investigation of a high-exposure event, in which 2 symptomatically ill hair stylists interacted for an average of 15 minutes with each of 139 clients during an 8-day period, found that none of the 67 clients who subsequently consented to an interview and testing developed infection. The stylists and all clients universally wore masks in the salon as required by local ordinance and company policy at the time.32
In a study of 124 Beijing households with > 1 laboratory-confirmed case of SARS-CoV-2 infection, mask use by the index patient and family contacts before the index patient developed symptoms reduced secondary transmission within the households by 79%.33
A retrospective case-control study from Thailand documented that, among more than 1,000 persons interviewed as part of contact tracing investigations, those who reported having always worn a mask during high-risk exposures experienced a greater than 70% reduced risk of acquiring infection compared with persons who did not wear masks under these circumstances.34
A study of an outbreak aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt, an environment notable for congregate living quarters and close working environments, found that use of face coverings on-board was associated with a 70% reduced risk.35
Investigations involving infected passengers aboard flights longer than 10 hours strongly suggest that masking prevented in-flight transmissions, as demonstrated by the absence of infection developing in other passengers and crew in the 14 days following exposure.36,37
Seven studies have confirmed the benefit of universal masking in community level analyses: in a unified hospital system,38 a German city,39 a U.S. state,40 a panel of 15 U.S. states and Washington, D.C.,41,42 as well as both Canada43 and the U.S.44 nationally. Each analysis demonstrated that, following directives from organizational and political leadership for universal masking, new infections fell significantly. Two of these studies42,44 and an additional analysis of data from 200 countries that included the U.S.45 also demonstrated reductions in mortality. An economic analysis using U.S. data found that, given these effects, increasing universal masking by 15% could prevent the need for lockdowns and reduce associated losses of up to $1 trillion or about 5% of gross domestic product.42

Experimental and epidemiological data support community masking to reduce the spread of SARS-CoV-2. The prevention benefit of masking is derived from the combination of source control and personal protection for the mask wearer. The relationship between source control and personal protection is likely complementary and possibly synergistic14, so that individual benefit increases with increasing community mask use. Further research is needed to expand the evidence base for the protective effect of cloth masks and in particular to identify the combinations of materials that maximize both their blocking and filtering effectiveness, as well as fit, comfort, durability, and consumer appeal. Adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation.


Study details

Inward and outward effectiveness of cloth masks, a surgical mask, and a face shield

Jin Pan, Charbel Harb, Weinan Leng, Linsey C Marr

Published in MedRxiv on 18 November 2020


We evaluated the effectiveness of 11 face coverings for material filtration efficiency, inward protection efficiency on a manikin, and outward protection efficiency on a manikin. At the most penetrating particle size, the vacuum bag, microfiber cloth, and surgical mask had material filtration efficiencies >50%, while the other materials had much lower filtration efficiencies. However, these efficiencies increased rapidly with particle size, and many materials had efficiencies >50% at 2 μm and >75% at 5 μm. The vacuum bag performed best, with efficiencies of 54-96% for all three metrics, depending on particle size. The thin acrylic and face shield performed worst. Inward protection efficiency and outward protection efficiency were similar for many masks; the two efficiencies diverged for stiffer materials and those worn more loosely (e.g., bandana) or more tightly (e.g., wrapped around the head) compared to a standard earloop mask. Discrepancies between material filtration efficiency and inward/outward protection efficiency indicated that the fit of the mask was important. We calculated that the particle size most likely to deposit in the respiratory tract when wearing a mask is ∼2 μm. Based on these findings, we recommend a three-layer mask consisting of outer layers of a flexible, tightly woven fabric and an inner layer consisting of a material designed to filter out particles. This combination should produce an overall efficiency of >70% at the most penetrating particle size and >90% for particles 1 μm and larger if the mask fits well.


Review details

An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19

Jeremy Howard, Austin Huang, Zhiyuan Li, Zeynep Tufekci, Vladimir Zdimal, Helene-Mari van der Westhuizen, Arne von Delft, Amy Price, Lex Fridman, Lei-Han Tang, Viola Tang, Gregory L Watson, Christina E Bax, Reshama Shaikh, Frederik Questier, Danny Hernandez, Larry F Chu, Christina M. Ramirez, Anne W Rimoin

Published in PNAS on 26 January 2021

The science around the use of masks by the public to impede COVID-19 transmission is advancing rapidly. In this narrative review, we develop an analytical framework to examine mask usage, synthesizing the relevant literature to inform multiple areas: population impact, transmission characteristics, source control, wearer protection, sociological considerations, and implementation considerations. A primary route of transmission of COVID-19 is via respiratory particles, and it is known to be transmissible from presymptomatic, paucisymptomatic, and asymptomatic individuals. Reducing disease spread requires two things: limiting contacts of infected individuals via physical distancing and other measures and reducing the transmission probability per contact. The preponderance of evidence indicates that mask wearing reduces transmissibility per contact by reducing transmission of infected respiratory particles in both laboratory and clinical contexts. Public mask wearing is most effective at reducing spread of the virus when compliance is high. Given the current shortages of medical masks, we recommend the adoption of public cloth mask wearing, as an effective form of source control, in conjunction with existing hygiene, distancing, and contact tracing strategies. Because many respiratory particles become smaller due to evaporation, we recommend increasing focus on a previously overlooked aspect of mask usage: mask wearing by infectious people (“source control”) with benefits at the population level, rather than only mask wearing by susceptible people, such as health care workers, with focus on individual outcomes. We recommend that public officials and governments strongly encourage the use of widespread face masks in public, including the use of appropriate regulation.


[link url=""]Full report in The New York Times[/link]


[link url=""]Commentary (Open access)[/link]


[link url=""]Scientific Brief (Open access)[/link]


[link url=""]MedRxiv study (Open access)[/link]


[link url=""]PNAS review (Open access)[/link]

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