What is it about?

The SARS-CoV-2 virus spreads via respiratory droplets which are released when an infected person sneezes or coughs. The first line of defense against such droplets is social distancing. Face masks, too, could reduce the spread of these droplets to a large extent. So, in situations where distancing is not possible, medical experts suggest wearing a mask. But can masks control the spread of disease in the absence of social distancing? To what extent can a face mask protect someone who is close to a sneezing or a coughing, infected person? A study published in 2020 attempted to answer this question by comparing the efficiency of five masks. The authors built a setup that could simulate the spread of airborne droplets during human interactions, even with infected people and those susceptible to contracting COVID-19. They assessed how snugly fit N-95, surgical, cloth, and wetted cloth masks performed in the presence of this setup. Of these, airborne droplets were able to leak through all except the N-95 mask. It was evident that in the absence of social distancing, masks did not protect a person who was susceptible to contracting COVID-19.

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Why is it important?

Masks are an important safety measure during this pandemic. This study shows that masks are effective at reducing the spread of airborne droplets. But it breaks the notion that it is safe to have close interaction with people when wearing a mask. Knowing the benefits and limitations of wearing a mask is essential for planning better public health guidelines. This information can help people select an appropriate mask as well. KEY TAKEAWAY: Masks cannot provide complete protection against virus particles during close personal interactions. Hence, it would be better to avoid interactions where the distance is less than 6 feet.

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This page is a summary of: Can face masks offer protection from airborne sneeze and cough droplets in close-up, face-to-face human interactions?—A quantitative study, Physics of Fluids, December 2020, American Institute of Physics, DOI: 10.1063/5.0035072.
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