Are Face Shields the New Face Mask?
My father drives my mother to the market every week. They’re waiting when it opens at 7:30 am. She slips a mask over her face before she goes in and struggles with breathing while she shops for the next 30 minutes. There are only two other people working; a stockman, and checkout clerk. Once she’s paid for her groceries and back in the car, she removes the mask, breathing a deep sigh of relief.
By now we all know we should be wearing face masks to protect others from potentially deadly infection when we leave the house. But face masks can be hot, and they can irritate the skin, fog glasses, make it difficult for some to breathe and create a world without smiles. It also can be difficult for people who have hearing loss to communicate when mouths are covered, muffling voices and hiding facial expressions.
Are clear plastic face shields, most frequently used in health care settings, a better option?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention continues to recommend wearing “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.” But some health experts say shields appear to be very effective at preventing infection — maybe even more effective than masks — for someone going about regular daily activities and not in a high-risk health care setting.
Amesh Adalja, M.D., a pandemic preparedness expert at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, says, “There’s a lot of at least biological possibility to suspect that [shields] are definitely better than homemade face masks, and maybe even better than other types of masks as well, because they not only prevent you from spreading it … [and] because it also covers your eyes, it provides more protection to the mucus membranes of your face where you might be getting infected.”
Another benefit, says Adalja: With a mask, you may find yourself constantly adjusting it and therefore touching your face and possibly transferring the virus from your hands, but wearing a shield “doesn’t really put you in a position where you’re touching your face so much, because it’s not as cumbersome to wear.”
And finally, Adalja adds, “If you walk down the sidewalk, you can find lots of masks that are just discarded there, which are an infection control risk for other people. Whereas a face shield is something that people can just clean themselves and reuse.”
Lauren Lek, Dean of Academy of Our Lady of Peace, plans to have her 750 returning faculty and students wear face shields at school rather than masks this August. “Safety and health for our community is a priority for us in reopening,” she says. “As soon as we saw from the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and our local public health office that face shields would be an acceptable alternative to face masks, we knew this was a direction we wanted to move in.”
You’re likely to find only health care workers wearing both a shield and a mask simultaneously. , Says nurse Mary Orr, “At work, the whole point of the shield is to keep particulate matter off the mask. The N95 mask I wear under it helps filter breathing the virus.
That reasoning may make sense in a health care setting, says Adalja, but “I don’t think you get much added benefit to wearing a mask if you’ve already got a face shield on, for the average person.” The odds of the viral particles floating upwards under your shield are a long shot for most of us, he adds: “Someone would have to stand underneath you and sneeze up into you. It would be an odd circumstance that would cause that.”
Whatever you decide to wear to prevent infection when you’re out and about, keep in mind that staying safe from COVID-19 means putting in place multiple safeguards, including thorough handwashing.