Blog | Tuesday, March 24, 2020

Homemade cloth masks for COVID-19 crisis

Everyone is aware of the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) and the sorry state our health care workers are in without the basic infection protection. Many industries use PPE but the current shortage with the COVID-19 pandemic is a true crisis for health care. The types of PPE are face shields, gloves, goggles and glasses, gowns, head covers, masks, respirators, and shoe covers.

Health care organizations are asking for PPE donations from other industries, and the federal government has promised to deploy equipment from the National Stockpile. Americans want to help and many have taken to their sewing machines to create homemade masks and gowns to supply medical professionals.

The British Medical Journal (BMJ) studied cloth masks (two layers, made of cotton) vs. medical masks (three layers made of non-woven material) in 2015 and compared the infection efficacy of the two. Participants used the mask on every shift for four consecutive weeks. They were asked to wash the cloth masks every day at the end of the shift.

The researchers found that the rate of infection was significantly higher with the cloth masks and they recommended caution with their use, especially in high-risk situations. They also found no benefit from double masking with cloth and the increased moisture actually increased the infection rate.

The study specifically looked at coronaviruses (SARS, SARS-CoV), influenza, parainfluenza, and RSV. The particle penetration through the cloth masks was very high at 97% compared to medical masks of 44%. The penetration with fitted N-95 masks is under 0.1%. (not used in this study).

Making a cloth mask for caregivers is a wonderful gesture. But it does not substitute for medical equipment and will not prevent the spread of COVID-19 or other common viruses.

This post originally appeared at Everything Health. Toni Brayer, MD, FACP, is an ACP Internist editorial board member who blogs at EverythingHealth, designed to address the rapid changes in science, medicine, health and healing in the 21st Century.