Despite unregulated face coverings being highly variable, they do, on average, reduce the spread of the virus.
This is because the equipment used for important tasks, such as surgery, must be tested and certified to ensure compliance with specific standards.
But anyone can design and make a face covering to meet new public health requirements for using public transport or going to the shops.
Indeed, arguments about the quality and standard of face coverings underlie recent controversies and explain why many people think they are not effective for protecting against COVID-19. Even the language distinguishes between face masks (which are normally considered as being built to a certain standard) and face coverings that can be almost anything else.
Perhaps the main problem is that, while we know that well-designed face masks have been used effectively for many years as personal protective equipment (PPE), during the COVID-19 outbreak shortages of PPE have made it impractical for the entire population to wear regulated masks and be trained to use them effectively.
As a result, the argument has moved away from wearing face masks for personal protection and towards wearing "face coverings" for public protection. The idea is that despite unregulated face coverings being highly variable, they do, on average, reduce the spread of virus perhaps in a similar way as covering your mouth when you cough.
But given the wide variety of unregulated face coverings that people are now wearing, how do we know which is most effective?
The first thing is to understand what we mean by effective. Given that coronavirus particles are about 0.08 micrometres and the weaves within a typical cloth face covering have gaps about 1,000 times bigger (between 1 and 0.1 millimetres), "effectiveness" does not mean reliably trapping the virus. Instead, much like covering our mouths when we cough, the aim of wearing cloth coverings is to reduce the distance that your breath spreads away from your body.
The idea is that if you do have COVID-19, depositing any virus you may breathe out on either yourself or nearby (within one metre) is much better than blowing it all over other people or surfaces.
So an effective face covering is not meant to stop the wearer from catching the virus. Although from a personal perspective we might want to protect ourselves, to do so we should be wearing specially designed PPE such as FFP2 (also known as N95) masks. But, as mentioned, by doing so we risk creating mask shortages and potentially putting healthcare workers at risk.
Instead, if you want to avoid catching the virus yourself, the most effective things to do are avoid crowded places by ideally staying at home, don't touch your face, and wash your hands often.
Two simple tests
If effectiveness for face coverings means preventing our breath travelling too far away from our bodies, how would we go about comparing different designs or materials?
Perhaps the easiest way, as demonstrated by several increasingly shared pictures or videos on social media, is to find someone who "vapes" and film them breathing out the vapour while wearing a face covering. One glance at such a picture dispels any suggestion that these face coverings stop your breath escaping.
Instead, these pictures show that your breath is directed over the top of your head, down onto your chest, and behind you. The breath is also turbulent, meaning that although it does spread out, it doesn't go far.
In comparison, if you look at a picture of someone not wearing a face covering, you will see that the exhalation goes mostly forward and down, but a significantly further distance than with the face covering.
Such a test is probably ideal for examining different designs and fits. Do coverings that loop around the ears work better than scarves? How far under your chin does a covering need to go? What is the best nose fitting? How do face shields compare to face masks? These are all questions that could be answered using this method.
But, in conducting this experiment, we should appreciate that "vaping" particles are about 0.1 to 3 micrometres – significantly bigger than the virus. While it is probably fair to assume that the smaller virus particles will travel in roughly the same directions as the vaping particles, there is also the chance that they may still go straight forward through the face covering.
To get an idea of how much this might happen, a simple test involving trying to blow out a candle directly in front of the wearer could be tried. Initially, the distance coupled with the strength of exhalation could be investigated, but then face coverings made from different materials and critically with different numbers of layers could be tried. The design of face covering that made it hardest to divert the candle flame will probably provide the best barrier for projecting the virus forward and through the face covering.
Without any more sophisticated equipment, it would be difficult to conduct any further simple experiments at home. However, combining the above two tests would provide wearers with a good idea about which of their face coverings would work the best if the aim was to avoid breathing potential infection over other people.
A new study suggests that an old tuberculosis vaccine may reduce the severity of coronavirus cases.
- A new study finds a tuberculosis BCG vaccination is linked to its COVID-19 mortality rate.
- More BCG vaccinations are connected to fewer severe coronavirus cases in East Germany.
- The study is preliminary and more research is needed to support the findings.
Preliminary findings from a new study show that Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG), a vaccine given to kids in countries where tuberculosis is prevalent, might be able to reduce COVID-19 mortality rates.
Analyzing globally-collected coronavirus mortality data, the researchers made adjustments for income, education levels, medical services, population density, age, and more. Across all variations, they saw a clear relationship where countries which had higher rates of BCG vaccinations also had lower peak mortality rates related to the coronavirus pandemic.
The study was spearheaded by Professor Luis Escobar of Virginia Tech as well as Alvaro Molina-Cruz and Carolina Barillas-Mury from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
Escobar, who teaches as part of the Department of Fish and Wildlife Conservation, said that the correlation they found does have some caveats.
"In our initial research, we found that countries with high rates of BCG vaccinations had lower rates of mortality," explained Escobar. "But all countries are different: Guatemala has a younger population than, say, Italy, so we had to make adjustments to the data to accommodate those differences."
In the example of Germany, the scientists were able to compare two population samples – the East German, which had older periods of BCG vaccinations (1951-1975) and the West German, which started and ended later (1961 - 1998). The data demonstrated that older East Germans were more protected from COVID-19 than their West German counterparts, exhibiting a mortality rate that was 2.9 times lower. This correlated to the possible efficacy of the BCG vaccine.
Professor Luis Escobar
Credit: Virginia Tech
"The purpose of using the BCG vaccine to protect from severe COVID-19 would be to stimulate a broad, innate, rapid-response immunity," shared Escobar, adding that previous evidence already pointed to BCG vaccines offering cross-protections not just for tuberculosis, but for a multitude of viral respiratory illnesses.
The vaccine gets its name from French microbiologists Albert Calmette and Camille Guérin, who developed it in 1919. It is widely used around the world, with 130 million people receiving it every year. It is, however, rarely given in the United States.
As the analysis is preliminary, more research is necessary to support the results and to recommend a course of action. Some clinical trials are currently underway to further investigate the role BCG vaccine might play in reducing the severity of COVID-19. The researchers hope that if further research supports the findings, the BCG vaccine might at least offer short-term protection from getting a bad case of the coronavirus. This can be especially helpful to frontline medical workers and people with compromised immune systems.
You can read the new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).
Is misinformation causing outbreaks of diseases long thought curable? A recent study found that just a simple "heads up" about fake news can help save thousands of lives.
It is easier to fool a person than it is to convince a person that they’ve been fooled. This is one of the great curses of humanity.
Given the incredible amount of information we process each day, it is difficult for any of us to critically analyze all of it. This is made even more difficult by the natural tendency to be overly critical of any information that threatens our worldview and under-critical of information that supports it.
The menace of misinformation can plague a society with grave consequences. For instance, the failure of people to understand that HIV causes AIDS killed an estimated 300,000 people in South Africa at the turn of the millennium. The state of Minnesota is battling a measles outbreak caused by anti-vaccination propaganda. And discussion over the effects of misinformation on recent elections in Austria, Germany, and the United States is still ongoing.
If only we had a way to prevent our seduction by misinformation. A vaccine of some kind perhaps…
A recent set of experiments shows us that there is a way to help reduce the effects of misinformation on people: the authors amusingly call it the “inoculation.”
In two experiments, groups of test subjects were exposed to misinformation after having been exposed to an “inoculation”. This inoculation was given in the form of either a warning of future misinformation or a review of why the misinformation they were about to read was a fallacy, with an additional group being given both. The control group was merely given misinformation.
The tests showed that this “pre-bunking” was extremely effective. While members of the control group saw a significant decrease in acceptance of the scientific consensus on climate change, members of all other groups saw minor drops at worst, which even then were heavily influenced by their pre-existing worldviews.
The most effective of these methods was an explanation of how the misinformation would be presented and how it would attempt to mislead them. This method was effective not only at slowing the pace of false information taking hold, but also worked across all worldviews and even reduced the polarization of all test subjects.
So, we can help prevent rampant misinformation now? Where do I sign up?
Research into how this works is still ongoing, though it is well known that suspicious people are less likely to be taken in by fraudulent action. The researchers also pointed out that several studies support the notion that teaching about misconceptions leads to greater learning overall then just telling somebody the truth. While the topic used in the study was climate change consensus, the researchers saw no reason to suppose these methods function differently with other subjects.
We all know somebody who has been taken in by a bad argument or by information they wanted to wanted to believe is true. Sometimes, it is even ourselves that can be fooled. A method to help prevent being taken in by bad arguments and false narratives could be a powerful tool for educating ourselves and others.
The full study can be read here.