CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - As COVID-19 vaccines go out to facilities across the country, health officials say it’s still important to follow health guidelines, including mask wearing.
Researchers at the University of North Carolina are studying various masks and their protection against COVID-19.
“It’s really been a tremendous opportunity,” UNC Medical Center Director of Infection Prevention Dr. Emily Sickbert-Bennett said.
Sickbert-Bennett, a co-first author of the study, told News 3 it started this past spring when masks were suddenly available to employees.
“We wanted to have a way to verify that they were as effective as we believed they were,” she said.
With a custom-built exposure chamber, scientists tested consumer-grade masks and improvised face coverings to show how effective they could be protecting people from airborne particles similar in size to those carrying the virus causing COVID-19.
“It allows them to generate an aerosol of a salt solution,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “They create measurements outside of the mask - and inside of the mask - to see exactly how much the mask is able to filter.”
Scientists ranked different mask types with filtration efficacy, which measures how well the mask material filters and fits on your face.
The most effective, at 98%, is the N95 mask. Other types, like a cotton bandana, ranked 49 to 50%, depending how it's folded. A single-layer woven polyester gaiter/neck cover ranked around 37%.
“It asks you to go through a variety of steps where you move your head from side to side, up and down, and you read a passage,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “Typical facial movements and measures how well the mask performs at filtering while it's really in use.”
Sickbert-Bennett said an important piece from the study shows the variety of masks available and how they can be optimized.
“Early on, there was sort of a clamor for certain types of masks and a question on whether or not cloth masks or other masks could be effective,” she said. “I think we've shown that they can be effective and given some practical advice about how to make masks fit better your face.”
Researchers will continue to study masks and hope people continue following guidelines.
“We know that consistently wearing masks protects you and protects others as well,” Sickbert-Bennett said. “The best mask to wear is a mask that you find comfortable that you're committed to wearing.”