Watch: New study confirms masks work to reduce coronavirus spread

Research supports wearing surgical face masks to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus.

Gesundheit II machine at University of Maryland School of Public Health

Gesundheit II machine measures viruses in exhaled breaths.

Credit: University of Maryland School of Public Health
  • A new study demonstrates that the transmission of the coronavirus can be slowed significantly by using masks.
  • The research shows that the wearer's breath is filtered by the mask, preventing spread.
  • The scientists used a machine to measure the exhalations of infected people.

New research supports wearing face masks to slow the spread of the deadly coronavirus. The study, carried out by researchers from the University of Maryland and the University of Hong Kong and published in Nature Medicine, showed that putting on common surgical masks significantly lowered the amounts of different airborne viruses that were coming from the mouths of infected people.

The study does not claim that the wearer of the mask is protected from infection, but establishes a clear reduction in the spread of viral infection to others. This is especially important in light of the fact that up to 25 percent of coronavirus carriers may be asymptomatic and won't necessarily know that they are ill.

The scientists carried out the experiments using a Gesundheit II machine, which was designed to capture breaths.

The machine is the creation of Dr. Don Milton, who runs the University of Maryland's Public Health Aerobiology, Virology, and Exhaled Biomarker Laboratory. He is also the senior author of the paper.

The experiments involving 246 people showed that the transmission of the coronavirus and other respiratory infections studied (including influenza and rhinovirus) can be slowed by surgical face masks. In the study, the researchers detected coronavirus in 30 percent of the respiratory droplets and 40 percent of the aerosols in the exhalation samples without face masks, but no virus in the droplets or aerosols collected from participants wearing face masks.

The study doesn't say the masks give full protection against the virus, especially as small aerosolized droplets have been shown to diffuse through the air and travel as far as 26 feet, but it bolsters the idea that wearing face masks can stem the tide in the fight against the pandemic.

Of course for this strategy to work best, it would make sense for most members of the society to adopt such an approach like in the Czech Republic where wearing masks is now mandatory. While the CDC has made a non-mandatory recommendation for wearing cloth masks in public, President Trump has pointed out that he won't do it. It's hard to expect a wide spread of the practice in the U.S. until its cultural approach changes.

Doctor Milton acknowledges that wearing masks is not "the first line of defense," but in the current situation "they are our last desperate thing that we do."

Gesundheit II in action

Check out the Gesundheit II in action during a 2018 study by Dr. Milton that showed how flu may be spread by breathing.

The new study, titled "Respiratory virus shedding in exhaled breath and efficacy of face masks," is available to read now in the journal Nature Medicine.

Face masks may still be in low supply where you are because of hoarding, so here's a helpful video from the CDC and U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams on how to make a face mask in 45 seconds while using items from around your house:

What does kindness look like? It wears a mask.

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Sponsored by Northwell Health
  • Michael Dowling is president and CEO of Northwell Health, the largest health care system in New York state. In this PSA, speaking as someone whose company has seen more COVID-19 patients than any other in the country, Dowling implores Americans to wear masks—not only for their own health, but for the health of those around them.
  • The CDC reports that there have been close to 7.9 million cases of coronavirus reported in the United States since January. Around 216,000 people have died from the virus so far with hundreds more added to the tally every day. Several labs around the world are working on solutions, but there is currently no vaccine for COVID-19.
  • The most basic thing that everyone can do to help slow the spread is to practice social distancing, wash your hands, and to wear a mask. The CDC recommends that everyone ages two and up wear a mask that is two or more layers of material and that covers the nose, mouth, and chin. Gaiters and face shields have been shown to be less effective at blocking droplets. Homemade face coverings are acceptable, but wearers should make sure they are constructed out of the proper materials and that they are washed between uses. Wearing a mask is the most important thing you can do to save lives in your community.
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