Medicine & Research

Cloth masks make a difference against COVID-19

By Darbi Haynes-Lawrence
The Centers for Disease Control recently altered their position on the public wearing masks. They are now suggesting everyone who must be in public wear a mask while also maintaining their distance of six feet or more from another person. This new recommendation comes after weeks of the public being informed that healthy people wearing a mask was not necessary. Because of that recommendation, much of the public is confused. Should we wear a mask? Should we not?

The reason for the change in information is not difficult to comprehend. Scientists are learning more about COVID-19 each day – including how long the virus lives on specific surface types, such as cardboard; how long it stays in the air; and how it is transmitted. Recently it was discovered that the virus could potentially be spread through the tiny droplets of saliva that leave our mouths when we talk. 

More importantly, it was learned a large number of people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic for days. During that asymptomatic time, or when they do not feel ill, they are actively spreading the virus through something as simple as speaking to someone, and definitely through coughing and sneezing. (A person can also acquire the virus if they touch a surface that someone has sneezed on, for example, and then touch their face, nose, or eyes.) If the asymptomatic person wears a nonmedical grade mask, such as a cloth mask while grocery shopping, it will decrease – but not completely eliminate – the spread of the virus. If another person in the grocery store who is healthy is wearing a cloth mask, they decrease their risk of catching the virus. Thus, taking all of these pieces of information into consideration, the recommendation that the public now wear a cloth mask was made.

The key words here are ‘cloth masks.’ The doctors, nurses, first responders, and all other medical staff who are on the frontlines of the fight against COVID-19 are wearing medical-grade masks. This equipment is called ‘Personal Protective Equipment’ or PPE. The PPE helps to minimize any exposure to hazards in the workplace. In this case, that hazard is the transmission of COVID-19. Readers may have heard of the severe lack of PPE for our frontline medical personnel. Those of us who are not in the frontlines of this fight against COVID-19 need to steer clear of any medical-grade masks and allow the hospitals to purchase them for their medical staff. 

Like you, I have multiple sclerosis, and I take a medication that suppresses my immune system. Does that make you and I qualify for a medical-grade mask? It does not, unless we are one of the medical staff that is on the front-line aiding patients who are suffering from COVID-19. What should we do? 
  • As stated repeatedly for a number of weeks, we need to stay home. Every single one of us, regardless of whether we have an autoimmune disease or not. Stay put! No visiting of family members that live outside our households. Our teenagers should not be visiting with friends. 
  • Second, wash your hands constantly. I’m sure you’re tired of hearing that by now, but it works. It is simple and effective. 
  • Third, refrain from touching your eyes, nose, mouth, and face in general. This is proving to be quite a challenge where I live, as allergy season is upon us. 
  • Fourth, if you must go out to get groceries, go to the pharmacy, or are considered an essential (nonmedical) employee, along with staying six feet or more away from every person you see and washing your hands all day, wear a cloth mask.

There are a variety of ways that you can create a cloth mask. The Surgeon General posted a video with instructions of how to make a cloth mask with items found around your home. This is the cheapest way to make a mask. I’ve viewed a number of how-to videos for the cloth-masks and his video is also the easiest! A second video that I have personally used is this video from The Turban Project. The Turban Project is a ministry of women who sew a variety of items such as face masks and knitted caps for children and adults who are receiving chemotherapy or other medical treatments. The organization Chemo-Buddies suggests the Turban Project’s video on face masks for people to follow when making face masks as a donation to people going through chemotherapy and radiation. 

If you are going to make masks for friends and family, you will want to pay attention to the type of material used in the mask. The CDC has indicated that not all fabrics are created equal. Fabrics have been reviewed for breathability and to determine their filtration of small particles such as viruses. It was determined no knits should be used, as the weave allows too many particles to come through. A mask made of two-layers for heavyweight quilters cotton worked best. For lesser quality fabrics, an internal layer of flannel added helps with filtration.

How do you know if the type of fabric you have around home will work? Hold the fabric up to the light. If light shines through easily, it will likely allow particles through as well.

If you cannot sew, and do not want to locate materials around your house, you can also search on Facebook or Etsy to purchase a mask from someone. If you are interested in making masks, purchase the fabrics online. They can be delivered right to your door, and you can wash and dry them. Many seamstresses are putting their sewing skills to good use right now and making masks as quickly as possible. Some come with a hefty price-tag, so be mindful of that. Others are making masks for people with only a suggested donation. For example, I am making masks for anyone who needs one in my hometown, with a suggested donation made to MS Focus: the Multiple Sclerosis Foundation. 

A few final concerns about masks. First, a concern about wearing a cloth mask is that people will begin to feel a false sense of security, begin leaving their houses more because they are bored, and begin socializing. The cloth mask is an added layer of protection in a long list of protective measures. Staying home is the number one precaution. Second, infants should never wear a mask. The mask will inhibit their airflow. Toddlers will likely not keep the mask on their faces. Forcing a toddler to wear a mask will only encourage a battle of wills, where the toddler will constantly touch their face while trying to get the mask off. If possible, our children should not leave the house at all during this time.

Per the surgeon general:
  • Wash hands prior to putting on the cloth mask
  • Do not touch your face once you get the cloth mask on. Assume your hands are always dirty and do not touch your face.
  • Remember – wearing a cloth mask is not a substitute for social distancing.