Masks, Myths, Morbidity: Experts Answer Your COVID-19 Questions
This post was originally published on Tuesday, Aug. 11, at 3:04 p.m.
We're entering the sixth month of the COVID-19 crisis but due to muddled messaging, pandemic politicization, health-related scams and misinformation running rampant online, health guidances remain unclear for many.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Are there any vaccines that are ready for wide usage?
Not quite yet. There are about 12 actually in phase two or three studies. And I think that's very encouraging. And actually here in San Antonio, there are already some available clinical trials of Texas. … But they're still in what we call phase two and three trials. So they have yet to be shown; their safety and efficacy has yet to be proven.
How long will it take to find a vaccine?
It's going to be at least several months from now, it's very hard to predict. But I would think, at least in the new year, hopefully early in the new year, and it's going to take a while to roll it out. Because of course, once it's proven to be safe and effective, then it has to be manufactured in substantial amounts, and then it has to be distributed. … I’m hoping by early 2021, there will be some ready for distribution.
How effective will a vaccine be?
I think it's unlikely that it would be 100% effective. … One of our most effective vaccines is a measles vaccine, and it's in the 95–97% range. And that's considered a very effective vaccine. As you know, our influenza vaccine, we have to change it annually because the influenza virus changes every year. So there has to be a prediction made about what's going to be the most common strains. Typically the influenza vaccine is somewhere in the range of 60%, sometimes less, sometimes more. And so, I think if it's in the range of 60–80%, that'll be considered a good vaccine.
Why has there been mixed messaging about whether one should wear a mask?
Part of the early advice had to do with the fact that we knew right away that there was a shortage of the medical mask and the N95 respirators that are used by the health workers when they're taking care of the COVID-19 patients, and especially when they're treating them with aerosol generalized procedures. So that led to the advice that masks could not be worn by the public. Or if one was worn, it was really for somebody who is suspected to be sick, that they should wear a mask so that they don't contaminate others.
So, should we wear masks now?
Now, eight months later, we realized that — even though the shortage still exists, and we do want to save the more medical masks and the respirators for health workers and first responders — the public has a very important role in playing by wearing a mask. It does protect and it does prevent transmission.
Will wearing a mask restrict oxygen intake or cause the wearer to inhale fatal amounts carbon dioxide?
There is no truth to those myths. The whole intent of the N95 masks is that 95% of the air you're breathing in is coming through the protective material, and you’re exhaling it that way. There's really no impediment of your breathing. There is harm in some of these respirators because they're so tight around your face. You know, doctors and nurses have bruises wearing them for so long. … Some fabric face masks have leakages around the side and around various parts depending how it fits on your face. The most important thing is that they're comfortable on you and you can breathe through it.
How do I know if my face mask or bandana will do the trick?
A bandana is often two pieces of cotton, so you can assume that that does not protect as well as three or four different pieces and a different fabric. For cotton, hold it up to the light and if you see sunlight coming through, it's not dense enough. If you see light coming through, you’ll need to double or triple it.
Is it unsafe to bike or walk on trails that don’t allow for social distancing?
It's very unlikely, since you’d be outdoors and passing people quickly. But if it is going to be very crowded, then it's probably a good idea to wear a mask for everybody's peace of mind.
Can young children infect their families?
There is some evidence now that very young children may be less likely to spread it than say preteens or teenagers — even if they're infected with it and are asymptomatic. And we're not sure for all the reasons for that. It may just have to do with the fact that they don't have a very strong cough or transmission dynamics in that population. We're just not very sure.
What extra precautions can be taken to protect family members who have a condition that would make them more susceptible to the virus?
For family members who cannot protect themselves, you will have to take extra precautions. One of the things that you have to do is keep your hands clean. Masks and distancing go hand-in-hand with sanitizing hands and other ways of cutting down the virus.
- May Chu, Ph.D., clinical professor of epidemiology at the Colorado School of Public Health
- Jan Patterson, M.D., infectious disease specialist in the Long School of Medicine at UT Health San Antonio
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*This interview was recorded on Wednesday, August 12.