Photo illustration by James Wilde with stock photos via Pixabay

Myths and Truths of Surgical Face Masks

Mirage of safety causes mask supply to plummet and xenophobia to reemerge
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Mirage of safety causes mask supply to plummet and xenophobia to reemerge

The emergence of everyday people using surgical masks amidst the COVID-19 pandemic has caused mass misinformation and the perpetuation of xenophobic ideas.

Myth: Surgical masks make you immune to COVID-19

Typically found on hospital workers and sick personnel as a safety barrier, surgical masks are almost regarded as invincibility devices, protecting the body from outside pollutants and threats. The implied purpose of surgical masks is to protect patients from the secretions of a doctor’s mouth or nose during surgical procedures or to protect doctors and nurses from infected patients. Either way, a basic surgical mask prevents the exchange of bodily fluids, not air particles. Surgical masks are often mistaken as invincible shields against all viruses and bacteria.

Surgical masks show no evidence of prohibiting the inhalation or contraction of the virus that causes COVID-19. The COVID-19 virus particles are too minuscule to be stopped by a surgical mask barrier. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “most facemasks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales.” In no way do surgical masks prevent or obstruct contaminated air.

While surgical face masks are virtually pointless against COVID-19, N95 filtering facepiece respirators are different. These masks are personally fitted to the face and “filter out at least 95% of very small (0.3 micron) particles, capable of filtering out bacteria and virus particles,” according to the CDC. These masks are typically worn by hospital and treatment personnel that come in direct contact with infected patients. N95 masks prevent the inhalation of micro-particles.

Truth: Surgical and N95 masks are running low

Due to the personal fitting of each N95 mask, they begin to degrade overtime depending on their usage, storage and environment. The assigned expiration date and high demand due to the current pandemic has resulted in an unexpected shortage in supply. Doctors are now reusing their masks, but they risk contamination due to degrading components affecting the protection and performance of the mask. Government administrations are requesting N95 donations as well as demanding some occupations to give up their assigned mask for medical workers.

While N95 masks are needed most, surgical masks are running low as well. Infected patients wearing masks benefit surrounding parties by limiting exposure of emitted particles into the air. The pandemic panic has misinformed the public to go buy surgical masks when patients and medical workers need them most.

Myth: DIY masks provide reliable protection

YouTube and social media platforms are advertising do-it-yourself face mask tutorials in response to the shortage in surgical mask supply. The misinformation has continued as people attempt to protect themselves with faulty protection materials. Bras and bonnets to sandals and plain cloths are being cut and trimmed to replicate surgical face masks. But, as previously mentioned, surgical face masks provide no protection against COVID-19 virus particles. Any alteration of store-bought or recycled material will have the same, if not less, protection against COVID-19 than a surgical mask.

Truth: Mask usage has reignited xenophobic ideas

Surgical masks provide zero protection from contracting COVID-19, but they have effectively reignited xenophobia. It’s completely normal for the mind to want to assign a face to an infected COVID-19 individual or picture what a threat would look like out of caution. Assuming someone wearing a face mask has the virus and extending that assumption past the mask, to their race or ethnicity, is disgusting, racist profiling. In a time of crisis, people should be exercising neighborly behavior and picking one another up, not perpetuating racist, profile-based assumptions on others in an attempt to accuse others of the chaos. It’s unproductive and invasive.

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