Tue | Oct 27, 2020

M.A. Hinchcliffe | COVID-19: Mask matters

Published:Thursday | October 15, 2020 | 12:08 AM
Audrey Hinchcliffe
Audrey Hinchcliffe

Masks have gained new respect for the role they play, specifically in infection prevention and control. They are now being credited with saving lives and even creeping into fashion. But what exactly is a mask?

The meaning of mask (noun) is;

(1) “a covering for all or part of the face, worn as a disguise, or to amuse or frighten others.”

(2) “a covering made of fibre or gauze and fitting over the nose and mouth to protect against air pollutants or made of sterile gauze and worn to prevent infection of the wearer or (in surgery) of the patient.” (Google Dictionary)

There are several other similar meanings, but in the time of the coronavirus pandemic, the meaning at (2) above is the subject of this article. We also hear of ‘face covering’. This is something which safely covers the nose and mouth, e.g., scarf, bandana, handkerchief, religious garment or handmade cloth covering. However, face coverings are not classified as personal protective equipment (PPE); only in a limited number of settings can face covering protect wearers against hazards and risks. So here comes fashion masks, face shield, statement masks and branding masks, giving effect to the rise in the entrepreneurial spirit. Demand it, and someone is ready to make it.

When it comes to fashion mask, Jamaican women make Nancy Pelosi (US Speaker of the House of Representative in the Congress) mask looks like she is not even trying. We only had to see some of the fashion worn by women at the opening of the new Parliament at the Jamaica Conference Centre on Tuesday, September 15. The new speaker of the House got my ‘WOW’ for her coordinated outfit and mask. Others didn’t even come close, much as they tried. The plain, disposable surgical mask is my personal favourite; while not a statement, it affords protection and at the same time will outlive fashion, although creating the problem of disposal. Sea creatures, beware!


The phrase in the face of the coronavirus, ‘don’t touch MEN’ (mouth, eyes, nose), is the basis for wearing face coverings – mask or shields – in order to protect us from getting infected with the coronavirus. I am still trying to figure out the reasons for non-compliance with such clear reasons for requiring us to wear them, among which is saving lives. While the message says, ‘The mask or the ventilator’ should at least prompt us to want to wear one. Could part of the reluctance to wearing a mask be linked to the wearing of mask to commit a crime? I read somewhere that someone said it was the first time being able to enter a bank wearing mask and not being subject to treatment as a robber.

Something seems to have been neglected in the public education on wearing mask as a means of infection control and prevention. The association was not made with the long history of the wearing of mask by health workers in this regard. Perhaps we need to ‘wheel and come again’. The message – wear a mask, stop the virus!

The ridiculing of wearing a mask must be strongly rejected as we see playing out in public, where when wearing a mask is not being enforced, the spread of the virus is proliferating, as in the case of the White House in the USA, which is now a super-spreader location.

So, when does the face shield come into the picture? The jury is still out on its effectiveness in infection prevention and control. What is agreed is that it is effective in ‘don’t touch MEN’ – it deters putting hands on our mouth, eyes and nose. Some researchers are of the view that being able to see the face, talk is clearer as mouth movement becomes discernible, rather than voice being garbled by a mask. On the other hand, it is also pointed out that droplets still escape, so depending on the area of work and exposure to the virus, it is advisable to still wear a mask. Whether mask or face shield, it is important that they are well fitted in order to prevent the escape of virus-transporting droplets.

Care must also be taken to fit children with age-appropriate masks for their protection.


Except for the single-use (blue surgical) mask, and N-95 designated for health workers, the standard for materials from which masks are being made appears to be non-existent and if so, not being observed. For example, someone approached me in a mask which was crotched. I have nothing against crotchet, but a mask? I enquired about its usefulness in protection against the coronavirus and was told it is lined, but lined with what? I immediately directed the wearer to the office where cloth and single-use masks are distributed to staff. Ours are made to order using ‘hospital-grade’ material – solid woven cotton. The creativity of entrepreneurs in producing masks must take into consideration their effectiveness in repelling droplets. The simple test – inability to put out a lit match or lighter by blowing through the mask (so I hear) is supposed to be the standard, made from tightly woven fabric with good seal along the edges. Masks are even made with a pocket for the insertion of a filter. The jury is out on the effectiveness of the material from which the filter is made

I refer you to Google ( medicalxpress.com) topic ‘Making a homemade COVID mask’. The study explains the best fabric choices by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. I invite you to read and draw your own conclusion. The fact is, there must be standards for masks material, design, fit, and care – disposal or washing, etc.

Masks, masks, and more masks – all masks are not equal, but wearing something is better than not wearing one at all.


The care of masks depends on the type – single-use, disposable or cloth reusable. It is important to own at least two masks – one in the wash, while one is being worn.

In the event that you are a wearer of disposables, discarding it must be in such a way that it does not cause spread of the infection or become an environmental hazard. Already, they are ending up in landfills, waterways, and as litter in open spaces, or even left in shopping carts. It is advisable that disposing of single-use masks be treated like the disposal of infectious waste and not into open rubbish bins, as the wearer could have been infected with the coronavirus, and it is not known how long it remains active on surfaces. Hence, protocols for disposal must be developed. In the meantime, it is advisable to cut off the strings and place them in a separate plastic bag before depositing them in rubbish bins.

Cloth masks, on the other hand, must be washed in hot, soapy water, placed in a dryer or hung in the sun, and also treated with a hot iron. Remember to care for the masks worn by children.

Follow the existing research for further advice.

Wear a mask – the life you save may be your own.

M.A. Hinchcliffe CD, JP, MSc, BA, is the CEO and founder of Manpower and Maintenance Services Ltd Group. Email: ceo@manpowerja.com