The Importance of Social Distancing: Face Mask Protection Isn't Enough to Stop Coronavirus Spread

The Importance of Social Distancing: Face Mask Protection Isn't Enough to Stop Coronavirus Spread

Since the pandemic started, face masks have been one of our main forms of coronavirus protection. And for good reason — scientific research unanimously agrees that masks help control the spread of respiratory droplets from sneezing and coughing, the primary ways that COVID-19 is transmitted. For this reason, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) have constantly emphasized how important it is that everyone don face mask protection when out in public to stymy the spread of this deadly virus.

But while common mask materials block the majority of droplets that spread COVID-19, new research shows that this may not be enough at close distances.

Face Masks Definitely Help, But Close Distances Are a Problem

Maintaining appropriate physical distancing can be difficult in both day-to-day social situations or medical environments. In fact, sometimes it can be completely infeasible. During these close-up encounters, it's common and comforting for us to assume that we're safe as long as we're wearing a face mask. To an extent, this is true; face masks do block most foreign airborne viral particles. But they may not block all of them.

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In a new study featured in AIP Publishing's Physics of Fluids, researchers examined how five different types of face mask materials affected the spread of coronavirus droplets. The good news is that every material was found to drastically reduce the quantity of droplets spread. But there is some bad news: For distances less than 6 feet, enough droplets to possibly cause infection still made it through many of the materials.

The bottom line? Masks need to be used in tandem with social distancing to prevent COVID-19 from spreading. "A mask definitely helps, but if the people are very close to each other, there is still a chance of spreading or contracting the virus," explains Krishna Kota, one of the study's authors and a New Mexico State University associate professor. "It's not just masks that will help. It's both the masks and distancing."

Testing 5 Different Types of Masks

To test the face masks, the study's researchers built an air generator machine that mimics the transmission of COVID-19 from coughs and sneezes. Essentially, it blows particles resembling the airborne droplets of coughs and sneezes into an airtight tube outfitted with a camera. They then blocked the droplets' flow in the tube with each of the five different types of face masks: a single-ply cloth mask, a two-ply cloth mask, a wet two-ply cloth mask, a surgical mask, and an N-95 mask.

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Each tested mask performed adequately in capturing the majority of droplets. The single-ply cloth mask only let 3.6% of droplets through, while the N-95 mask statistically stopped 100% of the droplets. But for distances smaller than six feet, the few droplets that make it through these mask barriers are potentially enough to make someone sick, especially if they're exposed to the airborne particles several times from multiple coughs or sneezes.

When the researchers converted the leakage percentages of these airborne droplets into an actual number of viral particles, they concluded that masks do not offer complete infection protection for their wearers when they are engaged in face-to-face human interactions that are closer than six feet.

A Few Virus Particles Can Make a Big Difference

Depending on how sick a COVID-19 carrier is, just one sneeze can contain 200 million viral particles. So even if your face mask blocks the overwhelming majority of those droplets, only a few are needed to make someone sick. And the closer someone is to a carrier when they sneeze or cough, the greater the chance that more particles will make it through the face mask.

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Kota explains, "Wearing a mask will offer substantial, but not complete, protection to a susceptible person by decreasing the number of foreign airborne sneeze and cough droplets that would otherwise enter the person without the mask. Consideration must be given to minimize or avoid close face-to-face or frontal human interactions, if possible."

Wear Face Mask Protection and Keep Social Distancing

It's important to note that none of the conclusions from this research condemns the usage of face mask protection. On the contrary, it actually affirms the need for everyone to wear face masks when out in public during this coronavirus pandemic. Without face masks, this deadly virus would undoubtedly spread at a much faster rate through the global population.

With that said, this study does make it clear that, while face mask protection removes the threat of the majority of airborne droplets, another measure is needed. And that measure is social distancing. When you're out in public, please wear a face mask and be cognizant of how much space there is between you and other groups of people. Don't hesitate to relocate yourself if you feel that your environment is getting too crowded. Lastly, don't forget to wash your hands and sanitize your face masks frequently.

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COVID-19 may make us feel like we're alone in our struggle to stay safe during these troubling times. But the truth is that we're all in this together. Staying healthy depends on all of us playing our part. And that means wearing face masks and social distancing. Stay safe out there!

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