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Latest research shows that surgical, N95 masks drastically reduce aerosols emitted by talking, coughing

n95 masks covid-19
Photo via michael_swan/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0)

Now that Joe Biden is the president, he’s written an executive order that mandates people wear masks while on federal land, and he’s been seen wearing face coverings more often in the six days since he was inaugurated than Donald Trump did for the past 10 months. 

So, yes, there’s more hope to ending the pandemic than we’ve seen in months. But it’s not over yet. January could be the worst month since the pandemic began, and the Biden administration was so flummoxed by a lack of data kept by the Trump administration that it’s not even sure how many vaccines are available in the U.S. 

That’s why the continued wearing of masks in our everyday lives is imperative, despite what Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky) says. More research continues to emerge about the masks and whether they should be worn to help stave off coronavirus transmissions, and the vast majority of it shows masks are vital to keep people safe from COVID-19. Recently, one of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s advisers said, “I’m still waiting for someone to point me to where in the world mask mandates are working.”

Well, here’s a sampling of some of the newest studies to be published along with other research we continue to discover. 

Asadi, S., Cappa, C., Barreda, S., Wexler, A., Bouvier, N., & Ristenpart, W. (2020). Efficacy of masks and face coverings in controlling outward aerosol particle emission from expiratory activities. Scientific Reports, 10(1). doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-72798-7 (September 2020) 

In this clinical trial, researchers measured the emissions of tiny aerosol particles in 10 healthy people (six female and four male) who were doing a number of activies while wearing different kinds of face coverings. This research showed that surgical masks and unvented KN95 masks reduced the emission rates of those aerosols by 90% and 74% percent, respectively, when those people were talking or coughing. The masks even worked against a “coughing superemitter.” 

But homemade cotton-fabric masks didn’t fare as well. Depending on what the mask was made of, the results between wearing a face covering or nothing at all were basically the same. In some cases, wearing the mask was even worse than going maskless, not unlike neck gaiters. Overall, though, researchers concluded that observations from homemade masks “indicate it is likely that they provide some reductions in emitted expiratory particles.”

In other interesting news, researchers did an audio analysis of their subjects, and they determined that people talked louder when wearing a mask, but they did not cough more loudly. Either way, the researchers concluded that “the results strongly corroborate the efficacy of medical-grade masks and highlight the importance of regular washing of homemade masks.”

–A recent article in The Atlantic asked why people weren’t wearing better masks. 

The authors, who were part of a team of researchers who published a peer-reviewed paper in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, wrote that they’d originally hoped that people wouldn’t have to still be wearing cloth masks in 2021 since they were originally supposed to be a temporary solution. 

“Don’t get us wrong; everything we said about the efficacy of cloth masks stands the test of time,” the researchers wrote. “Wearing them is much better than wearing nothing. They definitely help reduce transmission of the coronavirus from the wearer and likely protect the wearer to some degree as well. But we know that not all masks are equal, and early on in the pandemic, there was a dire shortage of higher-grade masks for medical workers. During those emergency conditions, something was much better than nothing. There are better possibilities now, but they require action and guidance by the authorities.”

With more COVID-19 variants circulating, wearing masks continues to be an important step people can take to keep themselves and others safe. 

As the researchers noted, “If we could confidently tell people that the masks would also help protect the wearer from infection, we would likely get more people to wear them. Appealing to solidarity is excellent (‘My mask protects you; your mask protects me’), but being able to confidently add self-interest to the equation would be even better.”

In case you missed the last blog post, the spotlighted research showed that people are getting on board with mask mandates and that a University of South Florida poll discovered that “66 percent said they would ‘somewhat’ or ‘strongly’ support a nationwide mask mandate—including penalties for noncompliance. However, their responses varied by party affiliation. Fifty-five percent of Republicans would oppose a national mask mandate compared to 35 percent of Democrats.”

Josh Katzowitz

Written by Josh Katzowitz