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Is your face mask protecting you from COVID variants? Here’s what to look for

Masks4Canada is encouraging everyone to use masks with proper fit and adequate filtration
A disposable face mask is shown attached to a woman’s arm in Old Montreal, Sunday, July 18 2021, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues in Canada and around the world. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

Masks4Canada — a group of Canadian doctors, scientists and health professionals — are urging the public to start wearing better face masks that offer more protection against COVID-19 and the highly infectious Delta variant.

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In the early days of the pandemic, the public was asked not to purchase face masks because supplies of personal protective equipment were too low to properly equip health care workers. At that time, it was believed that COVID-19 was spread primarily through large droplets of saliva, so the general public would be protected with non-medical masks and social distancing.

Things have changed since then. Canada now has ample supplies of medical-grade PPE and new science shows that COVID-19 is spread largely through aerosols, a cloud of viral particles that collect in the air of poorly ventilated spaces. Armed with this knowledge amid a backdrop of rising COVID-19 infections, Masks4Canada has launched a campaign to educate Canadians about proper masking.

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Fit and filtration key to a good mask

Danielle Cane is a member of Masks4Canada and a master’s candidate in infectious diseases through the U.K.-based London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Cane said when it comes to proper masking, the two most important factors are fit and filtration.

Cloth masks and surgical masks offer some of the lowest filtrations for respiratory particles. Masks like KN95, 95PFE and KF94 earloop respirators offer more protection, while N95, N99, FFP3 respirators offer a higher grade of protection.

The Public Health Agency of Canada recommends cloth face masks should be made of at least two layers of tightly-woven fabric like linen and a third layer of a filter-type fabric like polypropylene.

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Disposal respirators can be reused, provided they are not soiled and the structure is not damaged in any way. Most disposable respirators are approved for eight hours of total use.

For people without access to respirators, Cane said wearing two masks can help improve fit and filtration. A better option is to use a surgical mask with a mask fitter or brace, which are typically plastic headbands that help seal masks around the nose, cheeks and chin.

If your breath leaks from your mask — or you suffer from the infamous glasses fog — that means aerosols can get in just as easily. To test your mask’s fit, Cane recommends cupping your (clean) hands around your mask and breathing to see where leaks may occur. Respirators that use headbands typically have less leakage than masks that only use earloops.

Masks should always be worn over the nose and under the chin.

‘Any mask a kid is going to keep on is better than no mask’

When it comes to masks for kids, medical-grade respirators are harder to find. Those respirators also don’t come with stylish patterns or elements that kids might enjoy with their own masks. Cane said that although medical-grade masks for kids may not be as stylish or abundant, they’re a great layer of protection for kids to have in the classroom.

RELATED: Most Canadians say school children and staff should wear masks: survey

“Any mask a kid is going to wear and keep on is better than no masks. However — especially in schools where spread can very easily happen — I would still be very much inclined to be seeking out better masks. Earloop respirators are a pretty good option for kids because they’re pretty convenient and comfortable.”

Masks4Canada has compiled a comprehensive list of masks, respirators, tips, tricks and retailers that sell medical-grade mask supplies.

“We should have been upgrading to better masks last year as soon as stock issues were resolved and we had enough supply for our health care workers in the field,” Cane said. “We’re definitely overdue to encourage people to have them.”


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