With the United States continuing to see an increase in the number of new COVID-19 cases, the CDC advised all citizens to wear face masks in public places, in addition to practicing thorough hand-washing and social distancing. Given that healthcare providers are already facing a shortage of N95 masks, the recommendation is for people to save these masks for the hospitals and instead make their own face coverings from household fabrics.
This recommendation has left some wondering how effective homemade masks are. What’s more, leaders at hospitals – which are key in spreading the word on proven strategies to help stop the transmission of the virus – might wonder how they should react to this CDC update.
3 Key Studies on the Effectiveness of Homemade Masks
Although it has been a topic of debate as to whether homemade masks are effective in reducing the spread of infections, a few studies support the school of thought that homemade masks can help reduce transmission, at least to some extent.
1. A 2010 study “Simple Respiratory Protection – Evaluation of the Filtration Performance of Cloth Masks and Common Fabric Materials Against 20–1000 nm Size Particles” in The Annals of Occupational Hygiene (click here) evaluated the filtration performance of homemade masks. Researchers found that masks made from materials such as towels, scarves, sweatshirts, and T-shirts can provide marginal respiratory protection. The authors also hypothesized that these cloth masks might help stop the spread by discouraging individuals from touching areas around their face, which can minimize contact transmission.
2. A 2008 study “Professional and Home-Made Face Masks Reduce Exposure to Respiratory Infections among the General Population” in PLoS One (click here) compared the level of protection provided by personal respirators, surgical masks, and homemade masks. The study showed that homemade masks are the least effective at respiratory protection. However, the authors also found that their use can lead to a small reduction in the transmission of the virus, which may be enough to help slow an epidemic.
3. A 2013 study “Testing the Efficacy of Homemade Masks: Would They Protect in an Influenza Pandemic?” in Disaster Medicine and Public Health Preparedness (click here) evaluated the efficacy of homemade masks made of cotton T-shirts and other household materials. This study emphasized that homemade masks help to reduce the spread of droplets to some level, and the authors concluded that during times of crisis, this type of mask can be considered.
3 Examples of Hospitals Encouraging Their Communities to Use Homemade Masks
Given the new CDC recommendations – as well as the available literature that supports homemade masks, especially among lay people – healthcare organizations are beginning to voice their support for using the masks made of household fabrics to contain the spread of COVID-19. Some organizations are even providing instructions on how those in their communities can make their own cloth masks.
1. Kaiser Permanente came up with a comprehensive document (click here) that gives step-by-step instructions on how people can sew their own masks from household materials, including the proper measurements and specifications of the fabric to be used. Each step of the process is accompanied by photographs of someone creating a mask.
2. Atlantic Health System created a video tutorial (click here) that describes the steps to make a mask from normal household fabrics. Written instructions are also provided below the video to make it easier for individuals to refer back to the directions. While the instructions are provided for individuals who wish to create their own protective equipment, the health system is also accepting donations of homemade masks.
3. Providence St. Joseph Health instituted the 100 Million Mask Challenge (click here) to help overcome the shortage of personal protective equipment in its facilities, as well as to reduce transmission in the communities it serves. The organization created a video tutorial (click here), as well as a document that outlines the steps for creating a mask (click here). Both encourage each mask maker to first wash their hands thoroughly before beginning the work.
What Does It Mean?
There is no doubt that homemade masks are not as effective as surgical masks or N95 respirators, but research does show these masks can be considered in times of crisis – especially when communities need to reserve surgical masks and respirators for healthcare providers. As such, some hospitals and health systems have started to spread awareness about homemade masks and have even started to give patients directions on how to make them.
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