Wearing a mask is critical to reducing the spread of COVID-19, but rigorous tests conducted on behalf of CBC’s Marketplace found that while some work very well, others offer little protection from the particles that transmit the novel coronavirus. One type of mask can even spread those particles to others.
Months into the pandemic, there are still no standards for consumer masks. So Marketplace opted to compare more than two-dozen masks to what is commonly considered the gold standard in protecting health-care workers from infectious diseases like COVID-19 — the N95 mask.
Marketplace purchased the masks in stores and online from a variety of sellers. The masks were also made out of varying materials and featured different designs.
Marketplace put the masks through the rigorous National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standard test, conducted at a lower air-flow regimen to reflect normal breathing. The test is usually reserved for N95s and personal protective equipment (PPE) intended for health-care workers. A standard NIOSH aerosol test measures filtration efficiency, meaning the quantity of particles the mask filters out as the wearer breathes in.
An N95 mask must have a 95 per cent filtration efficiency.
“This is the benchmark test. And it’s actually useful because it allows us to compare consumer market masks to masks that we know a lot about,” said James Scott, a professor from the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health. Scott is a specialist in bioaerosols and runs the lab where Marketplace‘s tests were run.
The test pulls a constant breath of air containing tiny salt particles through the mask material. The salt particles are similar in size to particles able to contain the coronavirus that might originate from droplets expelled by an infected person’s breath, cough or sneeze. During the test, samples of air inside and outside the mask are compared to see how effective the mask is at reducing the level of particles.
Previous tests on consumer masks have commonly looked at how masks can help block particles when coughing or sneezing and prevent transmission to others. But the Marketplace test shows that certain materials make some masks better at limiting wearers’ exposure by filtering what they breathe in, Scott said.
“Even fairly low-efficiency masks are actually quite effective at catching much larger particles. But, it takes a really good mask to catch the small ones as well. And we know that the virus will travel not only on the big ones but the small ones as well,” said Scott.
PHOTOS | A closer look at filtration efficiency of mask materials:
Polypropylene fabric masks as good as N95
Marketplace‘s test found some masks are just as good as an N95 when it comes to filtering out those potentially harmful particles, including one made with something called polypropylene fabric.
Polypropylene fabric, in this case, is a melt-blown, non-woven plastic fabric. Melt-blown, non-woven polypropylene (NWPP) is commonly used in surgical and N95 masks.
The consumer mask Marketplace tested with an inner layer of melt-blown, non-woven polypropylene fabric and outer layers of cotton had filtration efficiency rates as high as an N95. Scott said the combination of multiple materials contributed to the strong result.
“This is a really good example of multiple layers of different materials combining to make something greater than the sum of the parts,” said Scott.
Blue three-ply surgical-type masks
Blue three-ply surgical-type disposable masks also reported some of the highest filtration efficiency rates in the Marketplace test, which was of no surprise to Scott, as most contain that melt-blown, non-woven polypropylene fabric.
“It’s this interwoven matrix of fibre. Air needs to travel around each one of those fibres and it meets the next fibre and it needs to bend its path. So as it does that, those fabrics pull out lots and lots of particles,” said Scott.
Two-ply and three-ply cotton masks
Marketplace also tested a number of cotton masks, including a two-layer, 100 per cent cotton mask, and a three-layer, 100 per cent cotton mask. More layers of cotton didn’t necessarily mean a better mask. The three-layer cotton mask Marketplace tested did not perform well, but the two-layer cotton mask did.
There was also a noticeable jump in filtration efficiency in cotton masks made with a higher thread count.
Masks made with 600 and 680 thread count cotton had filtration efficiencies almost twice that of the other cotton masks tested. Scott said the weave of a fabric is critical when it comes to catching those potentially harmful particles.
When it comes to cotton masks, Marketplace‘s test suggested the tighter the weave, the better.
Scott points out that manufacturers of consumer masks are not currently required to disclose details about thread count, and without that information it’s difficult to say for certain what contributed to some cotton masks’ poorer performance.
Masks to avoid
Scott said consumers should avoid wearing valve masks. While they are useful for protecting someone from inhaling paint fumes or when working in a wood shop, they do not help control the spread of the virus.
The reason is simple.
“Air only moves through the filter part of the mask when air comes in. It doesn’t move through the filter to exhale. It moves through the valve,” he said. “So there’s nothing to intercept those particles that you may be shedding into the environment.”
Transport Canada has banned the wearing of valve masks, as has Via Rail, and airlines such as Air Canada. Toronto, Ottawa Public Health, Hamilton Public Health and the BC CDC all recommend against the use of valve masks.
The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) said: “Masks with exhalation valves are not recommended, because they don’t protect others from COVID-19 and don’t limit the spread of the virus.”
Despite this, some members of the federal security force at Canada’s Parliament in Ottawa, mandated to provide physical security for parliamentarians, employees and visitors to the parliamentary precinct, have been wearing valve masks while on duty.
In an email, the Parliamentary Protective Service told Marketplace: “The masks issued by the Parliamentary Protective Service (the Service), despite having a valve, meet the criteria outlined by PHAC regarding the appropriate use of non-medical mask or face covering. The Service has since replenished its stock with masks that do not include a breathing valve.”
Other masks to avoid
The neck gaiter-style mask and bandanas were among the poorest performing when it came to filtration efficiency rates. Scott said the thin, porous materials they are made from is likely the reason they did a poor job filtering out any potentially harmful particles, which is made worse by their loose fit.
A two-layer, 100 per cent rayon mask was also among the worst performing masks Marketplace tested for filtration efficiency.
Lack of standards, testing for consumer masks
Physician and infectious diseases specialist Monica Gandhi from the University of California, San Francisco expects mask requirements to be around for the foreseeable future, at least until there is enough of a safe and effective vaccine.
“I have become more and more convinced that they are one of the most important pillars of pandemic control,” said Gandhi.
As Marketplace‘s research has found that consumer masks protect the wearer in addition to others, public health agencies recently updated their guidelines to include that messaging.
Last week, Health Canada quietly updated its mask-wearing guidelines, adding “to protect yourself and others.” On Tuesday, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control went further, updating its recommendations in favour of masking by outlining a number of studies that point to masking as drastically reducing transmission of the disease for both the wearer and others.
WATCH | How masks protect not only others, but the wearer, too:
“This is an incredibly exciting update from the CDC since messaging that allows the public to know that masks protect you as well as others will be more powerful in convincing skeptics that masks are important in public spaces to slow down spread and disease from COVID-19,” Gandhi said.
She also made note of research released in September that suggested wearing a mask can lead to less severe illness from COVID-19 by limiting how much of the virus someone inhales.
The CDC did not cite the study in its bulletin. However, Gandhi said there is accumulating data behind this hypothesis.
Regardless, she said: “Stressing that a mask protects you is getting out the same message we have been trying to convey for the past many months of the pandemic — that wearing a mask gives you a sense of control over your own destiny and protection. It is an important message.”
WATCH | These are the most effective face masks:
With rigorous standards in place for medical-grade masks in Canada and around the world, Scott anticipates standards for consumer masks are likely coming as a consequence of the pandemic.
Marketplace asked Health Canada why there is still no guidance on packaging for consumers with respect to mask performance, or best practices for manufacturers looking to make better masks.
Health Canada said that although it has not set out or endorsed any standards for face coverings, it is actively monitoring the development of standards for face coverings and may revise its position when new information becomes available.
Tips for finding the right mask
What to look for.
Start with something that fits you properly. Scott said a mask should fully cover your nose and chin, and be as tight fitting as possible around the rest of your face. If your glasses or sunglasses fog up when you are wearing your mask, you should choose another.
Scott suggests consumers look for masks made with multiple layers, and that at least one of them be cotton, preferably the highest thread count you can find.
The average person does not need the same level of protection as a health-care worker on the front lines, Scott said, noting that any mask is better than no mask at all.
Province reports 1,707 new COVID cases today – SooToday
Public Health Ontario has confirmed 1,707 new cases of COVID-19 today, which is 39 fewer than yesterday. There were 1,746 cases reported on Monday.
Of today’s new cases, most are confined to the Greater Toronto Area. There are 373 new cases confirmed in Peel Region, 727 cases in Toronto and 168 in York Region; that represents 1,268 — or 74 per cent — of the new lab-confirmed cases reported over the past 24 hours.
The agency also reported seven more deaths related to the coronavirus over the past 24 hours. Yesterday, eight deaths were reported.
More than 1,373 cases have been resolved since yesterday.
Over the past 24 hours, 34,600 tests were completed.
Since the start of the pandemic, public health labs in Ontario have processed more than 6.3 million COVID-19 tests.
Throughout Ontario, there are 645 people currently hospitalized with the coronavirus.
- Algoma Public Health: 60 cases, rate of 52.4 per 100,000 people. There are three known active cases.
- North Bay Parry Sound District Health Unit: 79 cases, rate of 54.7 per 100,000 people. There are 10 known active cases.
- Porcupine Health Unit: 106, rate of 127 per 100,000 people. There are no known active cases.
- Public Health Sudbury and Districts: 230 cases, rate of 113.1 per 100,000 people. There are eight known active cases.
- Timiskaming Health Unit: 18 cases, rate of 55.1 per 100,000 people. There is one known active case.
- Northwestern Health Unit: 121 cases, rate of 123.2 per 100,000 people. The health unit has also reported two probable cases that are under investigation. There are 17 known active cases.
- Thunder Bay District Health Unit: 308 cases, rate of 168 per 100,000 people.There are 93 known active cases.
Some Ottawa Public Health programs slowly returning – CBC.ca
Ottawa Public Health (OPH) has begun ramping up some community programs that were suspended at the start of the pandemic, but the city’s medical officer of health said not all will return to their pre-COVID-19 selves.
The pandemic didn’t just throw OPH’s budget into disarray but also how it offered many of its services, including chronic disease prevention work.
“These kinds of teams are completely redeployed to the COVID-19 response,” said Dr. Vera Etches, the city’s medical officer of health, on Monday.
OPH also had to shutter its four dental clinics across the city that offered services to people who had difficulties paying for care elsewhere.
The St. Laurent Boulevard clinic reopened for emergency services last week, while the Wabano Centre clinic should reopen part time on Thursday, Etches said.
Those clinics together saw 140 clients a day before the pandemic hit, said OPH’s director of health promotion and chief nursing officer Esther Moghadam, and the hope is to get the other two open so vulnerable populations have easier access to one nearby.
While the clinics were closed, Moghadam said dentists across the community stepped up to help and will likely have to continue to do so until the clinics are at full capacity.
“It’s still very early … There is going to be a need that we won’t be able to address fully,” she said.
Another program that fell by the wayside was the Healthy Growth and Development Program, which Etches said is currently running at 50 per cent capacity.
Its breastfeeding support work is moving online or having mothers come to OPH or other community partners instead of nurses visiting them in their homes.
Not all programs are set to return to the way they once were.
“We’re looking to learn from the new tools we have, the innovative approaches that can be built upon and the partnerships that we have grown to extend some of this work into the future,” said Etches.
That future shift includes those services tailored at chronic diseases, which she said will change because private companies have been stepping up to help protect and promote employee health.
COVID-19 in 2021
Ottawa’s Board of Health unanimously passed its largest budget ever at its meeting Monday night, with $24 million of its $98.1 million budget for 2021 expected to cover a number of one-time COVID-19 expenses.
Even with positive vaccine updates, Etches said next year’s budget forecasts a similar amount of COVID-19 cases, outbreaks, follow-up and communication work in 2021 as exists now.
It is also expecting to help provide that COVID-19 vaccine to Ottawa residents “which we are hopeful, initially, will protect against hospitalizations and deaths in the people most at risk,” she said.
“That would be excellent.”
The budget will go to city council for final approval on Dec. 9.
Parents welcome asymptomatic COVID-19 tests in schools, even if the news isn't always good – CBC.ca
It’s been a bit of a roller-coaster weekend for Toronto father Yaser Nadaf, after Ontario’s new asymptomatic testing for schools in COVID-19 hot spots turned up 19 new positive cases at his children’s school.
While his daughter and her Grade 3 class were cleared to return to school on Monday, his son’s Grade 2 class must self-isolate for 14 days, even though the youngster himself was among those who tested negative.
The weekend’s testing blitz at Thorncliffe Park Public School — the first Toronto District School Board (TDSB) location selected for the voluntary testing pilot announced last week — saw 14 classes affected and sent home for two weeks. However, the rest of the school will remain open, according to direction from Toronto Public Health.
Nadaf is rolling with it, saying he believes teachers and staff have been trying their best to maintain health and safety precautions and protocols.
“What can we do? This is going on everywhere in the world,” he said. “They try their best, but at the same time they cannot prevent it completely.”
Testing asymptomatic students and staff is currently being offered at designated schools in Toronto, Peel and York regions and Ottawa — four Ontario regions with a high number of active COVID-19 cases.
The goal is to improve tracking of the coronavirus and prevent transmission within schools, as well as to inform future public health decisions. While parents and health experts seem to be applauding the pilot, some are also highlighting shortcomings in how it’s being rolled out.
Over the weekend, testing also began in Ottawa at Manordale Public School, part of the Ottawa-Carleton District School Board. Amber Mammoletti, an occasional teacher working at two schools this fall, dropped by on Sunday to be tested with her son, Flynn.
“I think there’s people walking around not realizing they have it — no symptoms — so it’s just better to keep everyone safe: Get tested if you can and see what happens,” she said.
WATCH | How testing helped Cornell University become a model of COVID-19 prevention:
School boards are working with local public health authorities to determine which schools to target over the next four weeks, but the expectation is that new positives will undoubtedly emerge, TDSB spokesperson Ryan Bird said.
“The 19 cases we’ve learned about over the weekend [at Thorncliffe Park PS] as a result of the testing is a concern, but it’s not unexpected,” he said Monday.
“While this information is concerning, it really is the information that our public health officials need to know, because it gives them a better snapshot of how many of those asymptomatic people are positive cases of COVID.”
Despite the batch of positive cases arising from this first weekend, Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce reiterated his assertion that “99.9 per cent of Ontario students are COVID-free” during a press briefing on Monday afternoon.
Acknowledging that “we still have work to do” in tracking COVID-19 cases in communities, he characterized the new testing initiative as an extension of the existing safety measures his ministry had announced.
“The fact that hundreds of children, students and staff have gotten tested [at Thorncliffe Park PS] in conjunction with the local public health unit I think underscores that the plan in place is … working hard to mitigate any further spread: identifying COVID cases, isolating them or moving them from the school, so we don’t have spreaders within the school.”
‘Canaries in the coal mine’
A targeted campaign of testing in schools — which in most neighbourhoods are considered trusted, known places — is a welcome tool that adds to the barometer of what’s happening in the communities they’re located in, said Dr. Zain Chagla, an infectious diseases physician and assistant professor at McMaster University in Hamilton.
“Parents who may not be encouraged to go get tested in their local communities will readily take their kids to the school, which is a place they know,” he said.
“Things like this are going to be canaries in the coal mine. You kind of get a better sense of what’s happening in the community by doing these local testing strategies.”
He added the caveat, however, that the type of test being used will likely cause more chaos for families and schools.
For the pilot, Ontario is using PCR testing, which detects the genetic material of a virus. Although considered the gold standard, it’s also so sensitive it would “pick up kids who are infectious, as well as kids who were infectious two, four, six weeks ago,” Chagla said.
He suggested that they could have chosen rapid antigen tests, which flag active infections by identifying proteins on the surface of infectious virus particles.
The rapid antigen tests may offer a more precise picture “of who is really a threat to the community versus who had COVID six weeks ago, where they’re not really a threat,” Chagla said.
WATCH | Nova Scotia offers rapid COVID-19 tests in Halifax for asymptomatic cases:
Though Toronto parent Jessica Lyons welcomes the introduction of asymptomatic testing, she said it comes months late and should be offered more widely.
“This is desperately needed,” said the mother of two school-aged children and an organizer with the Ontario Parent Action Network.
“Much more testing in schools — to make it accessible, to make it easy for parents and families and students to do — is really essential. So we support this pilot, obviously, but we think that it should have come … weeks and weeks ago, and it needs to be expanded.”
Back in Thorncliffe Park, among the Toronto communities hardest hit by COVID-19 this year, parents in the neighbourhood expressed concern about the new positive cases found through the testing initiative. But they’re also adamant about one thing: their schools staying open.
Remote learning last spring was “really hard for kids. We’ve seen the mental stress on our child and other kids,” said Osamah Aldhad, father of a second grader who he said really missed being at school.
“When we were kids, you know, we used to run away from school,” Aldhad noted.
“Now they’re actually really wanting to go to school, which is really important for them.”
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