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Q&A: Mask Confusion and Misinformation

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Mask Qanda Crop

More than ever, people today are turning to less traditional media to find information on issues including public health, COVID-19, and mask-wearing. These sources are often unregulated, saturated with non-experts or discredited experts, and fraught with misinformation.

As a result, Canadians are more prone to health misconceptions than ever before.

A McGill University PhD candidate published a study in July 2020 on COVID-19 misinformation and its impact on public health. This study found that the more people used social media as a source for COVID-19 information, the more they were exposed to misinformation and were likely to disregard proven public health recommendations such as physical distancing and mask-wearing.

More traditional media sources, local experts, and government health agencies continue to be upheld as the most credible sources for news information—and, of course, it’s always up to the individual to use discernment.

To help stop the spread of misinformation, Dr. Alistair Brown of Winnipeg participated in a short Q&A to review the usefulness of masks, and explain their function, in preventing the spread of COVID-19.

Q. How do masks work?

A. In biological terms, there are different routes of entry for any foreign substance, both chemical and infectious disease. In increasing order of putting yourself at risk, these routes of entry are dermal (the skin), GI tract (the stomach), respiratory (the lungs), and intraperitoneal (injection). In terms of what we are most likely to encounter in normal life, breathing in a virus is our greatest risk, so wearing masks is a no-brainer.

If a person has COVID-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic, and wears a mask, they are protecting the public from getting it from them. If a person doesn’t have COVID, then wearing a mask gives an additional level of protection from getting COVID if someone in the community has it. If everyone wore a mask in public spaces, especially indoors, the transmission rate would drop significantly because there is double protection.

Q. But when the pandemic started, the CDC and Canada Health both originally advised against wearing masks. Why did they change their position?

A. In the beginning, we have to appreciate how very little personal protective equipment (PPE) we had for the global population. So the WHO and the United States’ CDC didn’t advocate for everyone to wear masks, because if everyone ran out to buy them, there wouldn’t be any stock for the frontline workers who needed them the most. These included N95 masks, surgical masks, and NIOSH vapour respirators.

Now that there’s a decent amount of research on cloth/cotton masks being able to provide baseline protection from COVID based on probability (regardless of pore size), mask usage is clearly the main answer to the general public’s protection right now.

Moreover, the extent by which COVID was being transmitted asymptomatically just wasn’t known at the early stages of this pandemic. It would have been worse for the CDC and WHO to be prideful and dig in their heels, saying, “No, we stand by our initial decision.” That’s not how science or health policy works—which is good!

Q. Are there physical harms, such as reduced oxygen intake, that can actually arise from wearing masks?

A. No. And I mean this with all sincerity. Oxygen is a gas, and it’s incredibly small. Any masks produced and regulated to protect people from gaseous things simply don’t work that way. That’s the reason why firefighters need to use oxygen tanks. Firefighting is a scenario where a respirator or mask won’t help you.

NIOSH respirators also do something fundamentally different that the ordinary person doesn’t really think about—they have a valve that allows normal airflow out. So if you’re painting, this is great. You are preventing organic contaminants from entering your lungs, because they are much larger than air, but you don’t restrict the amount of air leaving your lungs.

If you have COVID-19, then that [NIOSH respirators] doesn’t provide any protection at all against transmitting it to someone else. Even cloth masks would work better. But the idea that you restrict oxygen to your lungs by wearing masks is essentially a new wives’ tale that has no basis in science.

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For related article, see link below.
https://nivervillecitizen.com/news/local/q-a-mask-confusion-and-misinformation