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Do Masks And Gloves Make A Difference? Expert Weighs In

Photo of medical gloves and a mask
Yevhenii Orlov via iStock
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There's a shortage in the supply of proper masks for health care workers.

For more recent reporting about the science behind masks, read Caroline Ballard's July 20 interview with Dr. Ben Abbott, "BYU Researcher Says The Science Is Crystal Clear: Wear A Mask"

Proper protection for health care workers is crucial during the COVID-19 pandemic, but supplies are running low. To learn more about the basics of personal protective equipment, KUER’s Caroline Ballard spoke with Dr. Rachael Jones, an industrial hygiene expert who teaches at the University of Utah. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Caroline Ballard: Can you describe the most common types of face masks people are likely hearing about?

Rachael Jones: There are two types of masks that are used in health care that are effective. The first is a surgical mask or a face mask, and those are designed to prevent splashes of fluid from penetrating through the mask. So those are effective at keeping your nose, mouth and face free of microorganisms. 

The other type of masks are what are called N95 respirators. N95 respirators fit tightly to the face and are designed to prevent people from inhaling microorganisms.

CB: Why have these masks not been recommended for broader public use during this crisis?

RJ: There's a shortage in the supply of both surgical masks and respirators for use by health care workers. That shortage in supply is affecting different regions of the country to different extents, and that also can vary between individual health care organizations. That's the primary reason that they're not being recommended for the general public. 

The other is that if we are actually observing social distancing precautions, that is the most effective way to keep you as a member of the public from contacting other people with infectious disease.

CB: As an expert in this, what are some myths that you're seeing being floated around during this pandemic?

RJ: I don't know if they are myths or just misunderstandings. One is this desire to produce cloth masks for use by health care workers and by the general public. There's not a lot of evidence that cloth masks really prevent exposure either from liquids splashing onto the face or the inhalation of viruses and bacteria. And so those do not offer the type of protection that we want to provide to health care workers. 

The University of Utah has actually asked people to stop attempting to donate the cloth masks due to the low efficacy of those masks. It's a well intentioned effort, but I'm not sure how valuable that is going to be to health care workers. 

Now, they don't harm you as an individual to wear them, and so a member of the general public may wear them because it makes them feel more comfortable. But you should also use caution and not change your behavior to increase exposure because you feel like this cloth mask is offering you a lot of protection.

CB: Some doctors and hospitals in more underserved and rural areas have been asking the public to send homemade masks for patient use to prevent spreading disease and also to potentially extend the life of things like N95 respirators. What about those uses of homemade masks?

RJ: Regardless of where the health care workers are, I can't recommend that homemade masks be used to protect health care workers. In general, surgical masks are fairly effective at keeping people who are sick from emitting respiratory aerosols when they cough or sneeze into the environment. And so a homemade mask may offer some benefit in the absence of a surgical mask for a patient who is infectious, but they would not be an effective protective device for health care workers.

CB: What should the public know about gloves? Will gloves help prevent spreading or contracting COVID-19?

RJ: Well, we don't think COVID-19 will cause infection through the skin. So if a person is wearing gloves, it is largely to protect their hands from being contaminated so that they can then transfer the contamination to other places where it can cause infection. Gloves also help people remember to not touch their face, nose or mouth, which is a way that we believe the virus may be able to cause infection. And it also can help to keep your hands clean, but when you take off the gloves, it's always important to still wash your hands because you can get some material on your hands during the process of removing the gloves, and some material can enter the gloves if there's a tear or through the cuff.

CB: Do you know the status of the protective equipment supply here in Utah?

RJ: I have not received any official word. In conversations with some of my colleagues at the University of Utah hospital, it sounds like it varies between institutions. The University of Utah has already been maintaining a stockpile of equipment, and so they have not experienced shortages yet. But they're planning that in a couple of weeks they're going to be needing to implement some alternative strategies, and they're actively exploring opportunities for extended use and other types of controls to limit healthcare worker exposure. There’s a lot of new information coming out around alternative personal protective equipment devices, decontamination and sterilization of equipment. And so I think that it's a very rapidly changing landscape, and hopefully — nationally we'll come to some consensus approaches in the coming week or two.

Caroline Ballard hosts All Things Considered at KUER. Follow her on Twitter @cballardnews

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