Sheltered in Place? Make Masks

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(Bloomberg Opinion) -- It’s no secret that U.S. hospitals are facing a dire shortage of personal protection equipment for their workers. The surgeon general even urged the public to stop buying masks, stating, “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk.” Aside from insulting our collective intelligence — masks definitely can’t offer foolproof protection, but isn’t it enough that they can help? — the statement potentially fueled distrust and encouraged further hoarding.

We need to take the opposite approach: Emphasize how important masks can be in preventing the spread of disease if widely worn by anybody who is sick or might be. They’re so important, in fact, that we should do whatever we can to get a mask over every face during a pandemic characterized by stealthy spread from people who don’t know they’re infected. Even if it means making them ourselves.

There’s a growing movement to fabricate personal protective equipment at home. In some hospitals, desperate medical workers are fashioning protective face shields out of clear vinyl sheets and office supplies. In other parts of the country, seamstress groups have been hard at work turning T-shirts and bedsheets into face masks for health-care professionals. My local cottage industry in the San Francisco Bay Area has been so industrious that participants are now distributing masks to grocery store workers, restaurant staff and retirement homes.

It’s sensible to discourage public mask consumption at a time when supply chains are disrupted. But if individuals are mobilized to provide masks for their own communities, the shortage will become more manageable.

At the more technical end, Massachusetts General Hospital has called on individuals with 3D printers to help fabricate N95 respirators, a type of mask that blocks the inhalation of viruses. As of Monday, two prototypes had already passed an initial fit test. That doesn’t mean makerspaces will soon be filling the nation’s mask shortage. As hardware hacker Naomi Wu points out, N95 respirators won’t work unless they are airtight on the face, something that’s hard to achieve with the rigid plastic commonly used in 3D printers (the Massachusetts General prototypes use weather stripping). An improper seal could result in contaminants leaking through the edges of the mask.

Last week, I took to Twitter in an attempt to source some N95 respirators for the hospital where my brother works. I found N95 caches in the unlikeliest places. A surfer was wearing them while sanding his boards. A chicken-keeper used them to protect against bird fancier’s lung. A track car enthusiast had them for doing fiberglass repairs at home.

At this stage, a 3D-printed mask shouldn’t serve as a critical line of defense for front-line hospital workers. But the experimental masks could be employed in non-medical applications, where the primary hazard is prolonged exposure to potential irritants. Five million Americans wear respirators to protect against work-related contaminants.

For chicken farmers and sandblasters, a brief period wearing an imperfect mask would hardly be life-threatening. They could then free up industry-approved supplies for hospitals and emergency responders.

For some Americans outside of New York and Seattle, Covid-19 is still a distant fight. The main impact many people see is limited social and economic activity and a lack of toilet paper on store shelves. Encourage the homebound to participate in making personal protection equipment. During World War I, ordinary Americans were tasked with collecting fruit pits and nut shells for gas masks. It’s unclear whether fruits and nuts were a meaningful source of carbon for the masks’ charcoal filters, but even schoolkids in Akron felt like they were actively involved in saving lives.

President Donald Trump has indicated that he is keen on relaxing social-distancing recommendations and getting the economy moving again. At the moment, people are forced to stay home with nothing to do but read terrifying news about the coronavirus and impending recession. This is not great for public morale. But to reopen businesses and schools without widespread testing would be reckless. At the very least, let’s get everyone masked up.

A recentstudyconducted by the University of Maryland and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration estimates that an 80% population compliance in donning surgical face masks would be enough to eliminate an influenza outbreak. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Korea and Singapore have all encouraged widespread use.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Elaine Ou is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. She is a blockchain engineer at Global Financial Access in San Francisco. Previously she was a lecturer in the electrical and information engineering department at the University of Sydney.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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