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Why the mask is a must in omicron battle

The gauze masks were too basic to be effective against the Spanish flu, but today’s masks can protect us against the omicron variant

Sanjeet Bagcchi | Published 10.01.22, 05:25 PM
The importance of masks to prevent the omicron variant of Covid-19 virus is paramount

The importance of masks to prevent the omicron variant of Covid-19 virus is paramount

Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

In Kolkata and West Bengal, doctors, nurses, government and non-government staff are doing their best to combat the recent spike of Covid-19 cases. And yet, many people around us are still not wearing masks. 

Place the mask carefully, ensuring it covers the mouth and nose

How to wear a mask is not unknown to common people. However, in the context of omicron and the rising number of Covid-19 cases in Kolkata, let’s see some of the basic instructions on mask use. As a December 22 WHO guideline (applicable for community settings) points out: “Wash hands thoroughly before putting on the mask...inspect the mask for tears or holes...place the mask carefully, ensuring it covers the mouth and nose...avoid touching the mask while wearing it...remove the mask using the appropriate technique...replace the mask as soon as it becomes damp with a new, clean and dry mask...either discard the mask or place it in a clean plastic resealable bag...wash hands immediately after discarding a mask...do not remove the mask to speak.”

Mask mandate in Canada and Germany

A study conducted in Germany showed a 40% drop in the daily growth rate of Covid-19 cases with the use of masks

A study conducted in Germany showed a 40% drop in the daily growth rate of Covid-19 cases with the use of masks

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Explaining the significance of mask use in controlling the cases of Covid-19, researchers from Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) and other organisations wrote last year — in the Indian Journal of Medical Research (IJMR) — that, according to a study carried out in Canada, implementation of mask mandates in the country had led to a 25% drop in the weekly Covid-19 cases. Another study conducted in Germany showed a 40% drop in the daily growth rate of Covid-19 cases with the use of masks.

Wearing the mask diligently… only protection against the infection

Importance of masks to prevent the omicron variant of Covid-19 virus is substantial, according to Sushmita Roychowdhury, director of pulmonology at Fortis Hospital in Kolkata. “One of the most effective measures to safeguard against acquiring Covid infection remains the humble 3-ply surgical mask. Its value in light of a highly transmissible airborne omicron variant cannot be emphasised enough…. Wearing a mask diligently whenever outside your home covering your nose and mouth properly may be the only protection against the infection,” she explains. 

The American Medical Association has urged that, ‘[at] minimum, people should consider wearing two masks — or double masking — while omicron and delta variants continue to spread…’

The American Medical Association has urged that, ‘[at] minimum, people should consider wearing two masks — or double masking — while omicron and delta variants continue to spread…’

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Shantanu Panja, consultant ENT specialist at Apollo Gleneagles Hospital, also underlines the use of masks to prevent the spread of Covid-19. “We are naturally wary of the cold and probably the earliest in the country to bring out our winter clothes. Mask use adds to the comfort of covering [the] mouth and nose in winter. And it of course helps in a way to prevent the spread of omicron.” That apart, people should avoid crowded places, he adds.

Multi-layered gauze masks then, N95 now

History says, in the 1918 influenza pandemic, popular as the Spanish flu, multi-layered gauze masks were used among masses to prevent the virus; but, owing to the reluctance of people and the substandard quality of masks, the impact of mask use was not very prominent in the pandemic. With time, there was an improvement in the quality of masks and knowledge and awareness of people. As a result, masks played an important role to tackle the outbreaks of severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS). 

An American policeman wearing a mask to protect himself from the Spanish flu following World War I. Owing to the reluctance of people and the substandard quality of masks, the impact of mask use was not very prominent in that pandemic

An American policeman wearing a mask to protect himself from the Spanish flu following World War I. Owing to the reluctance of people and the substandard quality of masks, the impact of mask use was not very prominent in that pandemic

Topical Press Agency/Getty Images

Which type of mask works best to prevent omicron or the delta variant of Covid-19 virus is a tricky question. The American Medical Association (AMA), in a recent piece, has urged that, “[at] minimum, people should consider wearing two masks — or double masking — while omicron and delta variants continue to spread…. If one person is using a cloth mask over a surgical mask while the other person is not, it has been shown to block 85.4% of particles emitted during a cough. While double masking or a mask fitter may not offer as much protection as an N95 respirator, they are a big improvement compared to a cloth mask alone.”

Proper mask key to spread-reduction policy

Kaushik Basu, a clinical immunologist, says the best antidote for the time being is the oldest one — masks

Kaushik Basu, a clinical immunologist, says the best antidote for the time being is the oldest one — masks

TT archives

According to Kaushik Basu, a clinical immunologist and associate professor at Calcutta Medical College, the best antidote for the time being is the oldest one — masks. “It is known from studies that masks that are multilayered and particularly the N95 masks are quite effective in halting the spread of this virus,” Basu says. In this connection, Prasanta Kumar Maiti, former professor and head of Microbiology at Kolkata-based Institute of Post-Graduate Medical Education and Research, holds that until “a reliable antiviral therapy is discovered, spread-reduction policy both from inside and outside by way of effective vaccination and blocking virus at entry level, using proper masks and avoiding aerosol transmission, should be continued.”

 

Dr Sanjeet Bagcchi is a physician and independent medical writer.

Last updated on 10.01.22, 05:25 PM
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