Nfld. & Labrador

Homemade masks won't protect you against COVID-19 like handwashing, distance: experts

With confirmed community transmission of COVID-19 in Newfoundland and Labrador, more people are choosing to wear face masks when out in public.

'A lot of people in the general public have been buying them'

Erin Sonley is sewing masks, like the one she's wearing in this photo, in an effort to help people protect themselves from picking up COVID-19. (Submitted by Erin Sonley)

As people across Newfoundland and Labrador work to reduce the spread of COVID-19, more of them are choosing to wear face masks while on a weekly trip to the grocery store or on their daily walk. 

But with protective equipment needed in health-care facilities around the world and a shortage of masks in particular, some have taken to the sewing machine. 

Erin Sonley has made about 300 masks at home using two different designs with three to eight layers of fabric, and says business is good. 

"A lot of people in the general public have been buying them. I've been contacted by lab technicians, health-care workers, firemen, just about anybody who has to be out in public," she said. 

Sense of security

Sonley sells the masks for $10 using contactless pickup or delivery, and said she has given away more masks than she has sold. 

"With every $10 mask I sell, I can cover enough material to give away six or seven," said Sonley.

She stockpiled material before the COVID-19 pandemic began, bought more from Fabricville before non-essential retail stores closed, but has "had to get a little bit creative" with sourcing material lately. 

Sonley first started selling masks on Facebook before the social media site temporarily banned ads and listings for them on March 6. 

Meanwhile, Sonely said she simply feels more comfortable in public places when a mask is covering her mouth and nose, particularly since this province's first case of community transmission of the virus. 

Little evidence on homemade

Donna Moralejo, a professor in Memorial University's faculty of nursing who specializes in infection control, says masks can prevent the spread of COVID-19 by stopping droplets from an infected person's cough or sneeze from landing on your eyes, nose or mouth.

Donna Moralejo, a professor in Memorial University's faculty of nursing who specializes in infection control, says there is little scientific evidence on homemade masks. File photo. (MUN Faculty of Nursing)

When it comes to homemade masks, Moralejo said there is little scientific evidence about their effectiveness.

"I could only find two studies, and they were several years old, and they were done in the laboratory to see how well homemade masks were able to filter out different sizes of particles," said Moralejo. 

While she said homemade masks fared better than expected in the studies, they are not as effective as surgical masks or N-95 masks.

"If there's nothing else, they are absolutely better than nothing," Moralejo said.

These N95 masks are in short supply during the global COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Wilson/CBC)

The World Health Organization has created a website with advice for the public about when and how to wear masks.

Chief medical officer of health Dr. Janice Fitzgerald said Wednesday that medical grade masks are the only ones certified to prevent the spread of viruses. 

But nothing replaces careful handwashing and physical distancing. 

And Moralejo notes it's important to be careful when using any mask. 

"I'd be very concerned about people touching the front of the mask, which would be contaminated, and then touching their eyes or their nose or their mouth." 

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Heather Gillis

Journalist

Heather Gillis is a journalist based in St. John's. She has been working at CBC NL since March 2020, but has been reporting in Newfoundland and Labrador since 2011. Heather has a bachelor of journalism from the University of King's College and a bachelor of arts from Memorial University. You can reach her by email at Heather.Gillis@cbc.ca

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