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September 28, 2021

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Better Than Chicken Wire!

By Karen Kier, Pharmacist on behalf of the ONU HealthWise team

Chicken wire is a thin, flexible mesh of galvanized steel with hexagonal gaps meant to contain chickens and fowl. The wire comes in gap diameters of ½, 1, and 2 inches with gauges between 19 and 22. Chicken wire was used during World War II for radar fields and over helmets to insert leaves to make camouflage. Chicken wire can block radio and Wi-Fi signals by creating a Faraday cage. The Faraday cage was invented in 1936 by Michael Faraday to protect sensitive electronic equipment within an enclosure from external radio waves. So why am I writing about chicken wire?  

Recently, two pharmacy students entered a local business with masks on. A gentleman approached and asked if their masks were to protect themselves or him. The students replied that they were wearing their masks for both purposes. The gentlemen informed them that masks were no better to protect them from COVID-19 than chicken wire. So are masks better than chicken wire to protect from transmission and what does the science tell us?

The Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) published a summary of the effectiveness of wearing masks to control the community spread of the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The authors admit that prior to COVID-19, the evidence for masks was incomplete and not well studied. However, the science behind masks has improved dramatically with the pandemic. So much of what is seen on the Internet is probably old data and not current with the new science.  

The article in JAMA confirms the new science is compelling to demonstrate that masks worn properly are a highly effective means to prevent the spread of the virus from individuals who are infected and that there is protection to reduce the spread to someone wearing a mask who is not infected.  The protection goes both ways! The mask helps stop the exhalation of infected virus, as well as stopping the inhalation of the virus by someone else. The mask is meant to protect both parties, so I am proud to say the two pharmacy students were correct.  

The infected respiratory droplets that are exhaled when breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing or singing are smaller than 10 micrometers in diameter. So 10 micrometers is equal to 0.000393701 inches.  So clearly, chicken wire will not stop COVID-19.  What do we know about mask protection with the new science?  

We do know that COVID-19 can spread from those who have no symptoms but have the virus, as well as from those who have been recently exposed but do not have symptoms yet. A study published in 2021 showed that multilayer cloth masks were superior to single-layer masks. Layers made with fabrics with higher thread counts are superior in keeping droplets from escaping into the air where they can enter the nose, mouth, or eyes. The design of the mask is vitally important so that it fits tightly over the nose and mouth.  

Studies from earlier in the pandemic showed that household transmission of COVID-19 could be substantially reduced if all parties wore a mask during the isolation period. During a COVID-19 outbreak on board the USS Theodore Roosevelt, the navy reported that those individuals on the ship who wore masks had a 70% lower risk of testing positive for the virus. Public health officials reported that two salon staff who tested positive for COVID but had worn masks while working. After interviewing 67 of their clients, none of them tested positive for the virus. Both staff members were wearing masks at the salon.  

Masks can be uncomfortable and can often be cumbersome when communicating but studies show this discomfort is worthwhile. Studies have been done to show that oxygen and carbon dioxide levels do not change when wearing masks. The JAMA article cited 11 different studies done during the pandemic looking specifically at COVID-19 that showed mask wearing does indeed work to control the spread. These studies included data from Boson, Germany, Kansas, Washington, D.C., Canada, Thailand, China, and Wisconsin. The authors point out that a study from Denmark has been widely misinterpreted about mask wearing and the results have been used erroneously to support a no-mask mandate. The Denmark study was trying to prove a 50% reduction in cases in the study but the results were inconclusive because the study was too small and did not enroll enough of the population to accurately study transmission.  It is hard to shut down misinformation once it starts to spread because information indicating a lack of study participants does not stop the misinterpretation.  

Even if fully vaccinated, masks are still an important means of preventing spread especially of breakthrough infections when no symptoms are present. Indoor mask wearing is essential but there is some new data that the delta variant has the ability to spread in the outdoor space as well.  

The evidence says that masks are better than chicken wire, no matter the gap size!  

Feel free to call the ONU HealthWise Pharmacy at (419) 772-3784 or talk to your health care professional. ONU HealthWise is offering walk-ins for COVID-19 vaccines. Call the pharmacy to get more information on getting vaccinated.