Should Cloth Masks Be Used By Healthcare Workers As A Last Resort?
The heroic roles of healthcare workers have been highlighted during this outbreak of COVID-19. The healthcare professionals, having the most exposure to the virus, are at even greater risk due to the shortage of face masks and other protective materials.
As a result of this scarcity, many countries have urged medical professionals to rely on the use of cloth masks as a preventive measure against the coronavirus. In fact, in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its guidelines, advising the healthcare professionals to use cloth masks as the “last resort” when treating patients with COVID-19.
This announcement has led to a division of opinion in the medical community. For starters, several pieces of research have shown the ineffective results of using cloth-based face masks in preventing the transmission of viral infections. This suggests that using cloth face masks, while dealing with infected patients, could be potentially life-threatening for the medical staff.
Results of a Randomised Controlled Clinical Trial (RCT)
A randomised controlled clinical trial (RCT), carried out in 2015, revealed that using a cloth mask increased the risk of infection by 1.67% in the case of a laboratory-confirmed viral illness. The study further observed that the infiltration of the sodium chloride droplets was 97% in cloth-based masks, relative to the 44% in the medically manufactured masks. Additionally, the research found that the wearers of the cloth mask were at an even greater risk than the control group.
These results indicate that using a cloth mask (made up of either cotton, gauze or woven material) places the wearer at a high-risk of infection. This may be due to the fact that cloth-based face masks can contaminate the wearer as they are not fluid resistant. In addition to this, cloth masks, like surgical masks, do not have the ability to filter airborne particles. For healthcare professionals, using cloth masks can be extremely unsafe.
Plastic Shields As an Alternative
Plastic shields can also function as an alternative protective measure for healthcare workers. Recently, Lennon Rodgers, the director of the Engineering Design Innovation Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, created an infection controlling face shield, which has now been approved by UW Hospital. Additionally, doctors in Iowa have also fostered a belief that using a plastic face shield can be more effective than using a cloth face mask.
Plastic shields can prevent the spread of infection as they cover a larger surface area, and can be cleaned and re-used.
Considering the results of the clinical trials, using cloth-based face masks is not recommended for medical staff due to the high risk and hazardous impacts. While respirators and medically created face masks should be used by frontline and health care workers, plastic shields can be an alternative resort. However, the government can take the incentive to prioritize and allocate a larger amount of face masks to the medical community, before the people buy face masks in large quantities.