Wearing a mask as a precautionary measure to COVID-19– Becoming harmful?
The COVID-19 pandemic by every description and ramification is the defining global health crisis of our time and has left the world in utter bewilderment. Conversations about its mutation prospects, devastation on lives, businesses and economies certainly leaves a sour taste in ones mouth. Most nations are seemingly in a perpetual quandary as they’ve had to subject their plans, projections, healthcare systems and their manoeuvrings under the dictates of the virus’ whims.
Sadly, its impact has barricaded dreams, restricted access and stymied global agendas and operations making the dire state of its human resources and dwindling capital resources almost irreconcilable. COVID-19 came with its own rules of lockdown of countries, shutdown of businesses, confinement, social distancing and health compromise thereby making masks wearing a disagreeable norm.
On the 22nd of April 2020, there was a directive from the Presidency on the mandatory wearing of masks in public places and as a precondition to the lifting of the partial lockdown ban and for business activities to resume; acknowledgement of this order was a precursor.
President Nana Akuffo Addo- President of Ghana
The ministry of health waded in by admonishing the use of masks in all public places where social distancing will be virtually impossible. There were mixed reactions and agitations from the public over the discomfort in wearing it, with some also considering it a bit excessive as occasional flare-ups between the police and some individuals who displayed ignorance of the directive ensued.
Gradually, people are latching on to the importance of its usage as it is for their own good due to the menacing presence of the virus lurking in corners in anticipation of lynching flouters of precautionary measures. Masks wearing are seemingly becoming a poisoned chalice which needs immediate redress.
For some months now, there has been a clash of information between experts and some all-knowing section of the public over which category of people should wear the masks, the suitable type to wear and the whole psyche behind wearing it.
One striking feature in the whole discussion which is rarely touched on and properly elaborated for the benefit of the general public who stand the greatest risk of being infected, are the health implications of wearing these masks, which by every reason are supposed to serve as a protective mechanism against one contracting the virus, and/or shielding any transmission from symptomatic to asymptomatic persons.
COVID-19 has indeed brought the best and worst out of people and economies, with the larger section of the African population fashionably strutting and rocking their DIY branded and colourful masks, totally oblivious of the impending health risk.
One is forced to ask the necessary question of why there hasn’t been enough education and media coverage on the right mask to wear, its reusability (as some are effective for days and some for hours) and the potential health risk of these masks.
The WHO has come out to say that while masks could help limit the spread of the disease, they were insufficient on their own.
Assumption or Real– wearing a mask has health implications
With varying degrees of analysis and prognosis on the health implications of these masks, most people still find themselves on the blind side and are endangered in using these protective gears. Quite often than not, a fraction of carbon dioxide previously exhaled is inhaled at each respiratory cycle.
Ms. Mavis Aggrey - Coordinator for Infection, Prevention and Control Unit, Greater Accra Regional Hospital.
In speaking to the Infection, Prevention and Control coordinator for Greater Accra Regional Hospital, Mrs. Mavis Aggrey, she posited that,
“when you wear this mask, from source and what I also heard, human beings breathe out carbon dioxide and we take in oxygen; so when you wear the masks, expiration is retaken into the body and when it persists for a long time, it’s capable of causing hypoxia”.
Another complication with the wearing of masks, she cited, had to do with the wearer inhaling his own organism after a cough without spattering on surfaces which is a preferred option than contaminating others.
Similarly, she strongly advised, that one stands the risk of compromising his or her health in the wrong use of masks. As benign as it may seem to most people especially gym enthusiasts who do not miss any session in staying fit, there’s the likelihood of compromising one’s health as a result of the incessant use of mask in workout sessions. Suggesting home training, she mentioned the possibility of respiratory ordeals and possible death of such victims, adding that
“when exercising your oxygen intake is high, then definitely you’re not going to get sufficient oxygen to the brain and hypoxia sets in; you might die”.
Mask types used in the fight against COVID-19
Globally, manufacturers are producing three types of masks- surgical masks, respirators and cloth face coverings. Surgical masks are conventionally made for doctors to protect patients from infection during surgery, respirators on the other hand filter air passing in and out of the mask whiles cloth face coverings such as homemade masks prevent the wearer from spreading infection.
Our markets and streets are inundated with different types of mask, from surgical masks, sponge masks, N95, and the notorious culprit being the DIY or cloth face covering masks.
Despite the somewhat blithe use of masks, Mrs. Aggrey corroborated WHO’s finding by iterating the importance of wearing masks as it limits transmission of the virus and with that,
“if everybody wears face mask, as you talk, as you cough, as you sneeze, the masks will collect all the secretion and also, because it’s droplets, it’s contained in our secretion and therefore once we protect the secretion, it wouldn’t come out to contaminate surfaces and we can do that by wearing face masks, and so if everybody wears face masks… it will limit the environmental contamination”.
Speaking on the preferable choice, safety and reusability of these masks, her response dispelled doubts as she ideally opted for the N95, with her reason being,
“it is able to filter about 95% of atmospheric air making it sound and safe, however, nobody can be in the N95 for long… the masks are unavailable and so somebody will wear it for a long time which is also risky”.
When, where and how to use the mask
Essentially, the relevance on when to wear masks can be aptly placed under the context of public gathering where social distancing is a requirement. Observing the one to three metre gap between persons are virtually impossible, particularly in crowded public places so,
“if you are going to the market where there are crowds and you cannot control them... going to such places and you wear masks, I don’t see anything wrong with it but not during exercise”.
The wearing of masks comes with its do’s and don’ts with most experts suggesting users follow the basic steps of cleaning hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water before wearing it, avoidance of touching the masks while using it and removal of masks from behind. In as much as the safety, durability, and quality of masks are relevant in the discourse of mask wearing, Mrs. Aggrey opined that,
“Putting on masks limits secretions, that’s why we are advocating that everyone should put on masks, and putting on masks goes with how you wear it well without contaminating the masks and how to remove it well without contaminating yourself and also how to wear it well covering the nose and mouth”.
The perks of cloth or homemade masks are that it is economical and it can be washed and reused a number of times unlike the single use disposable masks and Mrs. Aggrey advised that after three wash it should be discarded since most people subject it to harsh washing disintegrating the lining which filters air entry, albeit there isn’t a clear directive from the standard authority on the matter.
On the back of this, she threw more light on it saying
“in between the cloth mask is the impervious material, that is the stiffener and therefore I think that anybody who would want to do the face mask should submit it to standard authority so they check to see if it meets the standard or not”.
She also implored the public to desist from reusing disposable masks which according to her is a nonstarter.
“Reuse of the surgical and N95 is a no for me because of the moisture aspect of it. They are disposable and therefore need to be discarded after use but because we don’t have enough, sometimes people go two days and three days using the same surgical mask which is very wrong”.
The reality of COVID-19
Interestingly, despite glaring statistics and tangible evidence of its decimation of human lives and havoc on economies and businesses, somewhere in Africa, there has been strong ambivalence towards the existence of the virus with many doubting it and laying claim to immunity of its trappings.
To this, Mrs. Aggrey emphatically stated that,
“this condition that is COVID-19 is real; everybody should understand that it has come to stay and it has affected almost every country under this planet”.
Further explaining that the virus.
“is a respiratory condition and therefore the mode of spread are through droplets infection and also through direct contact and indirect contact by touching of contaminated surfaces and introduce it to your mouth, eyes”.
Candidly, until a cure is found, which is believed to take about a year or two, people must adapt to these changes although it may not bear any semblance to the normal life they’re used to.
The WHO is of the view that, the best way to avoid the infection is by frequent washing of hands and avoid touching your face. In their view,
“A mask may help you stop spreading the virus, but hygiene is the key to avoid getting it”.