Should the general public continue to wear masks?

While some state governors are attempting to make masks a requirement for the general public, studies have found that they may not effectively prevent the spread of COVID-19. Nonetheless, there are other alternatives to masks that scientists are still conducting studies on, such as hydroxychloroquine.

Hydroxychloroquine is a common, cheap drug that has been prescribed to patients for over 60 years. It is deemed to be safe for many different people, including pregnant women and those with underlying health conditions.

Until such alternatives are deemed safe, the question of the efficacy of masks is still circulating among the general public.

“Health workers…Anyone with symptoms suggestive of COVID-19… [and] People caring for suspect or confirmed cases of COVID-19 outside of health facilities” are recommended to use medical masks, the World Health Organization states under its Q&A.

WHO also recommends masks for those older than 60 in addition to those with underlying health conditions. The organization also suggested that fabric masks are not meant for widespread use and potentially do not prevent the spread of the coronavirus. However, it also states that the government should incentivize the general public to use fabric masks when physical distancing is not possible.

Angelique Scarantino in a mask. Daniella Scarantino/Lariat

While businesses such as grocery stores and restaurants may require masks, there is little evidence to prove they can prevent transmission. If regular precautions such as washing hands and avoiding touching the face are in effect, the likelihood of an individual contracting the coronavirus decreases drastically.

“Larger particles (5 to 15 micrometers [µm]) will not immediately drop to the ground but will remain airborne for several minutes” said Dr. Lisa Brosseau, a former professor at the University of Chicago Illinois and national expert on respiratory protection and infectious diseases. “Smaller particles (less than 5 µm) will remain in the air for many minutes or even hours.”

In accordance with Dr. Brosseau’s statements, social distancing may not be effective in closed-off spaces.

The notion that masks prevent the virus from spreading has been challenged. N95 masks filter down to 0.3 micrometers of particles, while viruses range from 0.02-0.4 micrometers. More specifically, the coronavirus is 0.06-0.14 micrometers in size. This means that the virus particles that are left floating in the air can pass through N95 masks, which are far superior to cloth masks.

Some countries that have had very low death rates per capita, such as Sweden and the Netherlands, never required face masks to be worn and even reopened their schools and businesses as early as May.

A theory that has surfaced recently is that masks would not be a necessary precaution if hydroxychloroquine is an available prescription for positive coronavirus cases. The International Journal of Infectious Diseases performed an observational study on hydroxychloroquine and azithromycin therapy for COVID-19 patients and came to the conclusion that mortality rates using neither drug was 24.6% while treating with hydroxychloroquine alone was 13.5%.

While research is still being performed, studies are showing that masks are not effective enough in preventing the spread of COVID-19. So far, according to the observational study quoted above, the most effective research in stopping this disease is the use of hydroxychloroquine as prescribed by a doctor.