- 2003. 2020. What do these three years have in common?
All were pandemic years for this small round blue planet of ours.
For one of these years, masks were not part of standard operating procedures for personal protection – at least not up until now.
Should you be wearing a mask? Will it help? Is there any risk? Find out what scientists and health officials have to say.
A Brief History of Global Pandemics
1918 was the year an outbreak of influenza (aka “Spanish flu”) swept across North America and across the world, infecting more than 500 million people and killing an estimated 100 million – 1 percent of the world population at that time.
This was the deadliest pandemic ever recorded. The entire world shut down for more than 12 months.
In 2003, an outbreak of SARS-CoV, a type of coronavirus that is distantly related to SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19), killed about 800 and infected just over 8,000.
Now here we are in 2020, facing a worldwide pandemic again that is growing rapidly. Already, more than 1 million people have become infected. The death toll has reached an estimated 50,000.
The question on everyone’s minds right now is this: What have we learned about how to protect ourselves?
The Vital Importance of Masks: A Missing Element in the Current Pandemic
In 1918 and 2003, face masks were SRO – standard operating procedure. In fact, in some parts of North America, it was illegal not to wear a face mask!
However, in 1918, there was no such thing as the N95 face mask. N95 masks wouldn’t be invented for another six decades. So what were people wearing on their faces? They were wearing good old-fashioned cloth face masks that were worn, washed and re-worn.
Even with this historical information to guide us, the topic of whether or not to wear masks continues to be controversial.
Why haven’t we all just started wearing face masks as a matter of course with this pandemic?
The reason is twofold:
- fear of running out of N95 masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) for doctors and frontline health workers
- fear people will think that “just” wearing a mask equals full protection
To this point, the Health Canada website cautions that wearing face masks “may not be effective.”
Here are the main reasons for this legitimate cautionary statement:
- Homemade face masks are not regulated or tested.
- These types of masks may not provide complete protection.
- Homemade masks do not form an airtight seal around respiratory passages.
- They can be hard to breathe through.
- Too-frequent adjustments may actually increase contact with face and respiratory tissues.
In summary, is wearing a homemade face mask that your aunt or neighbor sewed for you (or that you jerry-rigged for yourself) a bulletproof protection against breathing in coronavirus particles?
Can wearing any kind of face mask potentially protect you from inhaling coronavirus germs or exhaling germs you don’t know you have and transmitting them to others?
Most likely yes.
This is why face masks should be worn. Because some protection – even some potential protection – is definitely better than no protection, which is what you will get when you don’t wear a mask.
The Danger of Wearing a Face Mask
The number one face mask concern most health officials express is that wearing a mask will give the wearer a false sense of security.
In an emergency-room setting, physicians, nurses and workers are wearing N95 masks AND surgical masks AND special protective glasses AND whole face masks for invasive procedures, and there is still a risk!
So it is vitally important to understand that just wearing a face mask is not even close to enough protection to let your vigilance lapse.
However, wearing a face mask PLUS washing and sanitizing your hands PLUS not touching your face PLUS practicing strict social distancing may (and likely will) lessen your risk.
It will also likely lessen the risk that you could be an asymptomatic carrier of COVID-19 who might pass the virus to others without realizing you are doing it.
NOTE: The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) is now recommending wearing cloth face coverings as an additional measure to protect against coronavirus infection and virus transmission.
How to Wear and Care for a Face Mask
All over the world, people are finding creative ways to make masks for themselves and others who need them.
Most of these people do not have access to N95 or equivalent surgical-grade masks or PPE.
But then again, neither did the people who lived back in 1918 during the influenza pandemic. They wore cotton face masks that they had to reuse time and time again. They quickly learned how to care for their personal masks to ensure they got as much protection from wearing them as possible.
The best fabric for a homemade mask is thick 100% cotton (sufficiently thick so that when you shine a light directly on the fabric, you can’t see the light filtering through on the other side).
This helpful how-to article (complete with a downloadable printable instruction sheet) gives you instructions for how to make your own mask at home.
If you can, make more than one face mask for each family member to use. Then alternate wearing and washing the masks to help them last longer. After wearing, wash the used masks in hot water, since heat effectively denatures (degrades) coronavirus particles.
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We hope this article helps you and your family do everything you can to protect yourselves against COVID-19.
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