You may or may not know this about me, but I’m a pretty big sports fan. Not the kind that remembers statistics or can quote drivers/players, but a screaming-at-the-TV-or radio in-support-of-my-team kind of fan. When I lived at home in Birmingham, I had a season ticket for the Holte End at Villa Park to see my boys (Aston Villa); now the main live sport I get time to see close up are the London Games when the NFL comes to town (I’m a Green Bay Packers fan and they’ll never visit). Sport is a massive release for me: Watching Sunday night NFL football and F1 is something that my hubby and I really enjoy doing together as these are our shared passions (N.B. in our household, I’m the big general sports fan rather than him).
So imagine what my Sundays in 2020 have become. Imagine that at the end of every race you sat and watched images of Max Verstappen engaging in face-touching whilst wearing a mask that is barely positioned to cover his nose.
The content of the interview is not important, but he rubs the edge of his mask, then moves his finger to his eye, then messes with the vent, then re-positions it by touching the front. All in a video that lasts less than 55 seconds.
The NFL is even worse. At least in F1 drivers are – for the most part – wearing masks, even if they appear to not know how to control their face-touching impulses. Within the NFL, the numbers of coaches not wearing masks at all has led to fines for individuals and for clubs. The NFL is big money in the US. A number of teams have been shut down for SARS CoV2 outbreaks, and yet the behaviour has continued.
So, Why I am Writing this Post?
Every week I get on tube trains to travel to work. During the first lockdown there was ~90% compliance with appropriate mask wearing. In recent weeks, compliance was less than 50% and I’ve seen all the variations in the image below and more. All this whilst I’m having to live with increasing numbers of clinical cases and receiving daily reports of the same elsewhere. I’m writing this as, although some of it is because of a decision to be non-compliant, I think a lot of it is about the fact that we are not really getting the message out about why appropriate mask wearing is important: not just box-ticking to have one near your face. I don’t think we’ve taught people about which bits of masks are contaminated and that touching those areas is where a big portion of the risk lies. This is why I was pretty much against selective mask use when it was introduced. Universal mask use is much more scientifically valid, but it’s not a panacea and actually increases personal risk if not done appropriately.
Why Does it Matter That I Wear My Mask Like a Necklace?
We know respiratory pathogens on the outer surface of masks may result in self-contamination. In my PhD thesis back in 2015, I discussed this as a potential route for hand/face contamination. However, in the context of a respiratory pandemic, and mass mask-wearing without training, the implications are much more significant.
The T-zone includes the mucous membranes within the eyes, nose and mouth. It has been noted that, even within a healthcare setting, members of staff engage in frequent face-touching, with one study noting that healthcare workers touched the T-zones a mean number of 19 times over a two-hour period, which may place healthcare workers at risk of organism acquisition/transfer. Additionally, organisms could survive on the skin for minutes to hours and thus present a source of hand contamination when touched in the future, with a possible spread to patients and surfaces.(Journal of the American Board of Family Medicine. 2014;27(3):339-46)My thesis (2015)
Fabric masks can protect by filtering up to 50% of particles, reducing exposure. The risk from inhalation is not the only one, however: viruses can survive on skin, paper and fabric, for hours in the case of SARS CoV2. The virus can also infect by self-inoculation into the eyes and contact with other mucous membranes, for instance people rubbing their nose after removing the mask. The above paper used fluorescent particles to demonstrate how contamination of the external of a mask works, and to help visualise the risk of moving that contamination around the mask and skin. If masks are not put on and taken off appropriately, if they are not worn the right way, and if we don’t wash our hands and think about how we touch our faces, we put ourselves at risk. We make the problem worse.
Back to Sport
Role modelling is so important in raising awareness. Teams and individuals have a massive platform to get this message out. People will say that sportsmen and women are not medically trained, so why should they take responsibility to get this message out? I would say that sports like F1 and NFL have huge levels of access to the worlds best clinicians; they have huge levels of medical investment and there is no doubt that these individuals will have been trained and taught. So they need to lead by example and enable me to get back to using Sunday afternoon sport as an escape, rather than a lesson in IPC failures.
Top tips for safe mask wearing:
- Wash your hands or use a minimum 70% alcohol gel before putting on (donning) and removing (doffing) a mask.
- If using a fabric mask, ensure that you are washing between each use.
- If you remove a disposable mask, throw it away: both sides will be contaminated and if you store it you just move that contamination around.
- Make sure your mask covers your nose and mouth.
- Be aware of face-touching and use hand hygiene if you accidently contaminate.
- Know that the outside of your mask is NOT CLEAN!
All views on this blog are my own