How Effective Is the Mask You’re Wearing?

  • Connexions
  • 2020-12-23
  • 1745

You can mark the pandemic’s passing by personal stages: the sourdough-baking period, the leaning-into-plants era, the trying-out-a-watercolor-hobby month. Concurrent with that timeline is one’s approach to masks, from those first months when medical masks were ordered online or handmade fabric scraps were fashioned into face coverings, to the realization that masks are here to stay, and thus—they might as well be comfortable and attractive.

More than 100,000 varieties of face masks are currently for sale. They come in silk, cotton and synthetics; with filters and without; over-the-head and over-the-ears. They have sparkles and sunflowers; friendly greetings and insults; cartoon characters and teeny reindeer.

What they don’t have is a label that shows how well they block infectious particles, an omission that has frustrated public health officials during the coronavirus pandemic. Those experts note that there is a big range in the effectiveness of various designs, and some barely filter out particles at all.

“The most fundamental, basic question is, What is the safest mask and how do I assure that I have that, and my family members and children have that?” said Fran Phillips, who stepped down in August from her post as deputy health secretary of Maryland. “It’s so startling that we are here in this moment and we don’t have that information.”

That may change soon. A division of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is working to develop minimum filter efficiency standards, and labels showing which products meet them, for the vast and bewildering marketplace for masks and other face coverings.

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