The effectiveness of homemade fabric masks in protecting against COVID-19

NOW: The effectiveness of homemade fabric masks in protecting against COVID-19

MILWAUKEE COUNTY (CBS 58) -- Thousands of crafty hands have stepped up to make fabric masks to donate to hospitals and even use to protect themselves, but it raises the question, do fabric masks provide any protection against COVID-19? 

With the N95 and surgical mask shortage, fabric masks have without a doubt been trending. Places like JOANN Fabrics have even offered free mask kits to sew at home or in the store for healthcare workers.

The CDC says the fabric masks are the last resort for hospitals.

“The CDC has stated that the homemade fabric masks are a crisis response option when other supplies have been exhausted,” said Shauntina Lilly, Senior Corporate Communications Specialist for JOANN Fabrics.

Area stores have become a collection site for homemade cotton fabric masks, even providing mask-sewing guidelines from local hospitals including Froedtert.

“We’ll get them in the hands of healthcare professionals that are in need of them,” adds Lilly.

The CDC says N95 masks will filter out 95% of small particles, making them effective against COVID-19, but experts say cloth masks don’t guarantee protection against the coronavirus. Ultimately, it depends on the material being used.

“It might not catch that particle. If the holes in the weave are too large, the particle will just go right through them,” said Dwayne Schlund, the Director of Milwaukee Area Technical College’s Respiratory Therapy Program.

By wearing them, some fear gaining a false sense of security. Some studies even suggest cloth masks could make the spread of infections worse.

“Depending on what they’re made out of, how long people use them, how much they reuse them and how much moisture is trapped, they could actually become kind of a breeding ground for the infection,” adds Schlund.  

Even with its effectiveness in question, Dr. John Raymond with the Medical College of Wisconsin believes the CDC may ask the public to wear surgical masks in the near future. 

“The Chinese CDC has already said we should be wearing masks,” said Dr. Raymond, President and CEO of Medical College of Wisconsin. “So I would say that conventional wisdom is going to change and there will be recommendations very likely for people to be wearing surgical masks.”

Surgical masks are similar to fabric masks in a way because they’re loose fitting, but the effectiveness still doesn’t come close to the N95.

“We don’t even know if surgical masks help you from giving or getting an infection out in public,” adds Dr. Raymond.

Still, Dr. Raymond believes the recommendation may be the right thing to do.

“More and more I’m starting to believe that we should be wearing masks if we have them when we leave our house, so I think it’s probably ultimately a good thing,” he adds. 

Dr. Raymond says while there needs to be more research done on the effectiveness of fabric masks, if wearing one shows how serious you are about social distancing, he says that’s a positive.

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