Covid-19 – Wearing Protective Masks Amid Comfort and Protection

A protective face mask

There seems to be legitimate concerns about the prolonged wearing of masks in the wake of covid-19. Some people complain of a number of conditions including breathing difficulties, discomfort, lightheadedness or headache, and fatigue due to inhalation of supposedly degraded quality of air while continuously wearing a mask. Others dread hypoxia (oxygen deprivation) or hypercapnia (CO2 toxicity). Yet others have the potential of developing rashes due to individual susceptibility, which cannot be undermined.

 But there’s no need to be overly worried. It is unlikely such apprehensions will go to the extent of resulting in drastic oxygen deprivation. Carbon dioxide (CO2) is dangerous, even life threatening, only if inhaled in high concentrations. According to Dr. Bill Carroll, of Indiana University, Bloomington, CO2 is dangerous when it exceeds 10% in an environment; it is usually present at a level of about 0.04% in the atmosphere.

A protective face mask is for your own and other people’s protection. And it is effective if worn in a judicious manner. There is a wide variety of masks from the simple homemade cloth masks to surgical masks to the N95 type which is usually for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.. Whatever it is, you should ensure that it fits comfortably, it is secured with ties or ear loops, and it allows you to breathe without restriction.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA, (CDC) usually recommend N95 mask to front liners due to its short supply. For others they advise wearing cloth masks which are intended to prevent the spread of virus from the wearer to others, especially if someone is infected but does not have symptoms. Such masks should be worn when going out and when you are expected to be in close proximity to other people or in crowds where social distancing is difficult to maintain, according to CDC recommendation.

In Mauritius the recent regulations under section 79A of the Public Health Act cited as the Prevention of Resurgence and Further Spread of Epidemic Disease (COVID-19) Regulations 2020 provide for the “wearing of a protective mask over the nose and mouth when you are in any place other than your ordinary place of residence”. They further require people to “strictly observe the social and physical distancing rules”. In essence people should “at all times keep a distance of at least one metre from any other person”, besides ensuring that they “disinfect their hands using an alcohol-based hand sanitizer” in observance of “general hygiene practices”. All these are in compliance with sections 4 to 7 of the said regulations.

In the context of health and safety considerations at work, your employer needs to assess the risk and implement appropriate administrative and technical control measures to prevent exposure and contamination. The wearing of a personal protective equipment (which include protective mask) is usually recommended when all the other options have proved insufficient, or for additional protection in combination with the administrative and technical controls. It is worthy to note that although there are no specific recommendations as to whether the employer should provide protective masks to its employees in the context of Covid-19, the employee while at work is required to wear such gear by being in “a place other than his ordinary place of residence”, in accordance with section 4. This means they might have to wear the mask for the whole period of time they are at work.

In a strictly general sense a protective face mask is not meant to be worn continuously over prolonged periods of time. But if you need to wear it all the time it is advisable to interpose it with frequent doffing periods, which means removing it often for brief periods for your own comfort and for minimizing fatigue and related symptoms.

Studies show that the impact of a face mask on the wearer depends on certain underlying health conditions or pre-existing respiratory illnesses (like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the type of mask and the length of time worn. Because they are normally not tight-fitting, the N95 masks and the cloth masks are not likely to give rise to hypoxia or hypercapnia. And the effects of wearing a cloth mask over a prolonged period are said to be minimal.

Based on current knowledge, the coronavirus is transmitted between people through close contact and droplets. Although a simple mask may not offer foolproof protection, it will add up to the other measures in controlling the transmission of the disease. But it is important that the population gets clear instructions on what masks to wear and how, because there are no provisions to that effect – protective mask has not been defined in the regulations. It could mean anything from a scarf to a handkerchief, a cloth mask or a proper mask from the pharmacy.

Note: This article was written for This Week News Mauritius on May 18 2020

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