Island University COVID-19 Experts Encourage Use of Homemade Masks, Bandanas

By Darrell J. Pehr | Published: May 27, 2020

Island University COVID-19 Experts Encourage Use of Homemade Masks, Bandanas

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – As businesses and public places are opening to customers and visitors across the Coastal Bend, researchers at Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi encourage everyone to stay safe by using face coverings – a recommendation that is now backed by a new study.

A research team in Hong Kong has confirmed the importance of the general public wearing face masks as one major prevention strategy to contain the spread of COVID-19.

“A study conducted on hamsters released May 17 by the Department of Microbiology at the University of Hong Kong found that wearing a face mask can significantly reduce the transmission of COVID-19,” said Dr. Meng Zhao, Associate Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Population Health & Health Systems Leadership at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi. “The study is the first of its kind to use hamsters, providing strong evidence of the effectiveness of wearing face masks.”

The Hong Kong experiments found that the coronavirus’ transmission rate via respiratory droplets or airborne particles dropped by as much as 75% when surgical masks were used. Hamsters have very similar enzyme receptors to humans, which is why they were chosen as the test animals for the experiment. The study is expected to be published in the Clinical Infectious Diseases medical journal.

Dr. Laura Monahan, Assistant Professor and Interim Chair of the Department of Women, Children and Family Health Sciences at A&M-Corpus Christi, noted that the findings are especially significant when specific characteristics of COVID-19 are taken into consideration. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) states that recent studies show a significant number of those with the coronavirus lack symptoms, and those who eventually develop symptoms can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms. 

“Thus, the virus can spread between people in close proximity – speaking, coughing, or sneezing – even when those people are not showing symptoms,” Monahan said. “The CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings, especially where other social distancing measures are difficult, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. This measure, in addition to maintaining social distancing and washing hands thoroughly, are all necessary for the prevention of COVID-19.”

Zhao is a member of the Joint Taskforce studying the COVID-19 epidemic in the Coastal Bend (https://tinyurl.com/TAMUCC-COVID) in coordination with the City of Corpus Christi and Nueces County. The taskforce reported late last week that infections are presently expanding with a transmission rate of 1.3 to 1.6 people infected per carrier.

“While this is a much smaller rate than the 2.8 transmission rate that would take place without precautions, the epidemic is still expanding,” said Dr. Philippe Tissot, Interim Director of the Conrad Blucher Institute at A&M-Corpus Christi and a member of the taskforce. “Additional measures such as more people wearing masks in the Coastal Bend are needed to compensate our increased social contacts and to bring us back to a transmission rate below 1, such as was the case in mid-April.”

Even a relatively low transmission rate of 1.3 to 1.6 can result in a total of 17 people being infected per carrier over the course of a month. The much higher infection rate of 2.8 can result in 95 people being infected per carrier in just a month.

Zhao gave some guidance on the process of choosing and using face coverings.

“To reduce propagation of the coronavirus, the public can wear face masks made of tight-weave cotton, or bandanas,” Zhao said. “Masks must be worn correctly, which means not touching the front of the mask, washing the face mask after each use, maintaining physical distance, and practicing good hand hygiene. This could have a significant effect on the number of needed ICU beds and ventilators and help to decrease the number of casualties in the Coastal Bend.”

Zhao also reminded Coastal Bend residents not to use surgical or N95 masks needed by health care providers.