Ditch the neck gaiter? Not so fast, say authors of widely circulated study.
For many in ski country, a Duke University face mask study earlier this month was cause for alarm.
That neck gaiter that worked well on the slopes or the cross-country ski trails seemed to double as a perfect pandemic face covering, more comfortable and breathable than other, more robust masks.
But the widely circulated study seemed to show that wearing a neck gaiter actually did more harm than not wearing a mask at all, causing more droplets to fly through the air and potentially increasing a wearer’s capacity to spread COVID-19.
Days after the study was released, the Summit County Health Department canceled a large order of neck gaiters, citing their apparent ineffectiveness in fighting the spread of the disease.
But in a press conference Thursday, two of the study’s authors clarified the purpose and results of the study, saying it was not a systematic study of mask efficacy and rejecting the notion that wearing a neck gaiter is worse than wearing no face covering.
“Absolutely not,” said study co-author Martin Fischer, a Duke chemist and physicist.
The study used a laser to illuminate particles in the air that came from someone speaking aloud and a camera to record them in a specially fashioned box. The goal was to prove the efficacy of a low-cost measuring device for mask efficacy.
The study examined 14 masks, and found that they ranged in apparent efficacy from a fitted N95 mask down to a bandana, which still showed a slight reduction in the number of particles detected. The fleece neck gaiter was the only mask to create apparently more droplets than a speaker who did not use a mask.
The authors theorized that the thin material actually split larger droplets into smaller ones, increasing the overall number. Smaller droplets, too, have the ability to travel farther and be carried on air currents, Fischer said.
The neck gaiter used in the study was stretchy and very thin — 92% polyester and 8% spandex. When they held it up to a light, it could be seen through.
“We tested one mask because we just had that mask lying around. As I mentioned, it was a pretty thin mask,” Fischer said. “There are plenty of other gaiters out there. There are some that have thicker material. If you double them up, fold them over, have more materials, wear more of those materials — we haven’t tested that, but I’m convinced the results would be different, likely better.”
The Park City School District has ordered two gaiter-style face coverings for each student, and Superintendent Jill Gildea said that they are more robust than those used in the study, made with two layers and with antimicrobial properties.
The authors also stressed that the study was intended as a proof of concept of how to test droplet spread. They hoped others would use their methodology to test more masks and said that the dearth of solid data on the subject is probably why their study received so much attention.
“We have very little evidence that even cotton masks, when people wear them or other bandanas or things like that, very little testing on that at all,” said Eric Westman, a study co-author and a physician with the Duke University School of Medicine.
Westman added that he hopes the study will make people think critically about the face mask they choose.
“I think it should at least tell people to take a pause and consider what you’re doing,” he said. “If it is a one-layer, spandex polyester stretchy fabric that you can breathe easily through and blow out a candle through it, this is not going to be protecting very well, we think. But if it is a double layer, it is more comfortable, it’s probably going to do better. But I have to say, we haven’t tested that.”
Westman said that the study helped him visualize the droplets that humans emit while speaking, which are impossible to see in normal circumstances.
“What I learned from this study, being in that study myself, is that just speaking can potentially spread this to other people,” he said. “I don’t have to yell, I don’t have to sneeze or cough. So being around other family members at a picnic or around a table without a mask can be spreading a disease.”
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