After months of insisting that masks arent necessary unless youre unwell, health agencies across the globe are now encouraging mask-wearing for everyone. And the move appears to be backed by research that suggests masks, even homemade face covers, can be effective in protecting against Covid-19. But to understand why masks are critical, we must understand how the virus spreads and what different levels of exposure to the virus can mean.
HOW DOES THE VIRUS SPREAD?
The primary way the virus spreads is through respiratory droplets. A cough or sneeze can send respiratory droplets six feet into the air but they are relatively heavy and fall to the ground before getting further.
But the virus can spread through aerosol transmission, a process by which respiratory droplets are turned into very small and light particles, less than 5 micrometers in diameter, that can hang in the air for longer. Aerosol transmission is not the primary mode of transmission though.
More on Covid-19
WHATS THE IMPACT OF EXPOSURE TO THE VIRUS?
Currently, the coronavirus is being measured as a binary phenomenon — people are either infected or uninfected. But its important to measure nuances of the virus on an individual basis Pulitzer prize-winning physician Siddhartha Mukherjee, in a New Yorker article, says there are some questions researchers must answer to understand if preventive measures and treatments are effective:
– Is the risk of infection higher if one is exposed to higher doses of the virus?
– Does a greater exposure to the virus result in greater severity of illness?
Heres what researchers know so far:
Exposure vs Risk of infection
– Several studies have found that exposure to larger amounts of some viruses increases the chances of an infection
– But it also depends on individual specific factors, like “peak viremia” and “set point”. Peak viremia is the highest point the virus count reaches after an infection and set point is the level to which the virus count settles after reaching its peak
– An HIV study showed that people with a higher peak viremia were least able to fight the virus and those with higher set points got sicker faster. Conversely, the immune system may be better able to cope with an infection if the viral load is lower than the peak viremia and set point
Exposure vs Severity of illness
Data suggest coronavirus poses a greater threat for older people and those with underlying conditions. But several deaths of young healthcare workers have raised questions about the relationship between the extent of viral exposure and the severity of illness.
– In Wuhan and Italy, data show that while medical workers dont have a higher fatality rate, they suffer disproportionately from severe forms of illness. They are also getting exposed to the highest quantities of the virus
– One study published in Lancet showed that those suffering more severe forms of Covid-19 had 60 times higher viral loads in their nasal swabs than those with milder forms of the disease
WHY MASKS ARE CRITICAL IN REDUCING VIRAL LOAD
Research on the effects of high levels of exposure to the virus suggests protective Read More – Source