What qualifies as a mask and what does not, especially in the time of Covid-19?
This remains as a controversy and was brought up after the recent incident a man wearing a neck gaiter was denied boarding by a bus driver because he thought that it was not an actual mask.
The definition of a mask is "any paper or textile covering designed or made to be worn over the nose and mouth to provide the wearer protection against infections or air pollution, but excludes a face shield" under the Singapore regulations which is fairly broad.
However, based on a study conducted by Duke University in the United States, published in the Science Advances journal this month, discovered that there are “masks” which encourage the spread of droplets instead of reducing it.
While the majority of people would abide by the law and put on proper masks, there will be a minority in the community who will try to defy the law by taking advantage of the loophole.
The rule states that everyone must wear a mask when they are out with the exception of when they are exercising, eating or drinking. However, this is up to them to decide on what a mask is.
Should the Covid-19 fatigue set in, would the public see wearing of a mask as a form of fashion statement rather than a health requirement? Though it is undeniable that a silk scarf covering the nose and mouth would offer some protection, is it sufficient?
Wearing a mask is compulsory, those who fail to comply will be met with a $300 penalty because there are people who contracted Covid-19, showing zero symptoms, yet infecting others. The only way to reduce the spread of droplets from such asymptomatic carriers is to ensure that everyone wears a mask when out. By doing so, it would also lessen the risk of the virus spreading to others unknowingly.
With that being said, not all masks are made the same way. Some masks offer better protection against the spread of virus as compared to the others, despite that none is fully effective. The rule of thumb is : the easier it is to breathe with the mask on, the less effective it is. Hence people should strike a balance between effectiveness and comfort. Effectiveness should not be compromised as one’s health is at stake.
The duke study, which compared the spread of droplets from a range of masks, discovered that most of them gave reasonably good protection except for one of the 15 types which proves to be worse than not wearing a mask at all. That is the single-layer neck gaiter which consists of 92 percent polyester and 8 percent spandex.
Explaining this apparent anomaly, the researchers said the neck gaiter "seemed to disperse the largest droplets into a multitude of smaller droplets which explains the apparent increase in droplet count relative to no mask in that case".
"Considering that smaller particles are airborne longer than large droplets (larger droplets sink faster), the use of such a mask might be counter-productive."
Of the masks they tested, the authors added that "some mask types approach the performance of standard surgical masks, while some mask alternatives, such as neck fleece (gaiters) or bandanas, offer very little protection".
Associate Professor Eric Westman, one of the researchers involved, said in a webinar on the results that the findings also showed "people do spit out particles when they speak", and not just when they cough, sneeze or shout.
Another kind of mask that is better not worn in public spaces, and in fact has been banned in some places, is one with valves or vents. Such masks which help the wearer to breathe easier, do protect them. At the same time, it also allows air, including any droplets in it, to freely flow out hence it does not stop the transmission of the virus from a person who is infected.
Earlier in August, the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention said : "Masks with exhalation valves or vents should not be worn to help prevent the person wearing the mask from spreading Covid-19 to others."
These masks have since been banned by most major airlines in the US, as well as some cities there, such as San Francisco and Denver.
Closer to home, health authorities in the Philippines have "strongly" advised against the use of masks with valves or vents.
But currently in Singapore, any face covering will pass muster, regardless of whether it reduces or increases the spread of droplets.
KHALIK, S., 2020. When It Comes To Covid-19, Not All Masks Are Created Equal. [online] The Straits Times. Available at: <https://www.straitstimes.com/singapore/when-it-comes-to-covid-19-not-all-masks-are-created-equal?utm_medium=social&utm_source=facebook&utm_campaign=stfb&close=true> [Accessed 21 September 2020].