In the light of the rising daily caseload of covid-19 cases and with a highly transmissible omicron variant to deal with, much care is needed in choosing the right mask. In the current scenario when both fit and filtration is crucial, a simple cloth mask, studies show, have limitations especially when dealing with a highly transmissible variant and therefore most experts favour a multi-layered cover.
While the feasibility of large-scale use of N95s or FFP 2s may be a challenge in an Indian context – not just because of cost but also because there are competing fake and substandard variants in the market. The solution, at the moment, may be to seek the guidance of doctors and opt for some trusted / reputed brands or opt for reliable sites when searching online.
Ideally, many experts recommend medical procedure masks / surgical masks & ideally N95/FFP 2. Or as Dr Gagandeep Kang, virologist and professor at the Christian Medical College, Vellore, puts it simply: “a surgical mask when outdoors and N95 9 (or FFP 2) when indoors.”
Either the blue / green multi-layered surgical / medical masks that is commonly seen could be used if not good quality N95 or FFP 2 masks.
Three factors are very important when choosing a mask: 1, the mask has to be tight-fitted; 2, it has to be good at filtration so that the respiratory droplets containing the virus are captured by the mask; 3, it should not be damp (because of talking or due to perspiration) because a damp mask is no good at all.
The golden rule for all is adhering strictly to masking. “I have been saying repeatedly that everybody has to be masked because that is the only way now and avoid crowds and seek greater ventilation. If everybody is wearing a good quality mask then transmission can be significantly curtailed. This studies have shown,” says Dr Soumya Swaminathan, chief scientist at the World Health Organisation (WHO). In fact, a recent large scale trial in Bangladesh, covering nearly 350,000 people in rural Bangladesh concluded that masks did help and also that the transmission was lower when people wore surgical masks, but not when they wore cloth masks.
For those in doubt, Dr Swaminathan points to the guidance put out by the WHO on the kind of masks to be worn by the public and by the healthcare workers and opt for masks that conforms to the suggested specifications. For most people, it looks at reusable non-medical masks, disposable medical masks but for healthcare professionals (including community healthcare workers) an N95 or FFP2 is favoured as they are likely to come in contact more with COVID infected people.
The choice of the mask off course varies depending on the region, country, the epidemiology, the availability and the cost among other factors. However, what matters is the nature of the mask and the length of time it is used. Plus, in cases where these are washed and reused, it is important that they are clear, dry and exposed to the Sun for the maximum amount of time.
Dr K Srinath Reddy, President of the Public Health Foundation of India, says double masks are best if N95 or FFP 2 masks are not available. “If you have a cloth mask, double mask till you are able to get a better mask,” he says. “Sometimes, a multifold face tissue paper inside the mask also serves as a second mask inside the main mask and helps reduce fogging of spectacles.” The crucial point, yet again is it being tight-fitted, high on filtration and never damp.