Technology & Science

We'll wear masks after the pandemic, researchers predict, and they're trying to make them better

While many Canadians may be longing for the day when masks are no longer required, researchers are working on the next generation of personal protective equipment — hoping improvements will make the public use protective gear after the pandemic.

Experts hope by improving masks and PPE, people will be more likely to wear it post-pandemic

PhD students Ryan LaRue, left, and Patrick Morkus test breathability of mask fabrics using a 'pressure drop' test at McMaster University in Hamilton. If the device has a high pressure drop, it means it would be more difficult to breathe through the mask. (Jin Lee/McMaster University)

Anesthesiologists recently came to Ravi Selvaganapathy and his colleagues at McMaster University with a problem.

They needed a superior face shield that would protect them from the coronavirus but didn't require a mask to be worn underneath and wouldn't fog up. 

Selvaganapathy and the team at McMaster's Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials (CEPEM) ended up creating a face shield with mask material around it.

"This is a completely new design of PPE that comes from a user specification that we can develop," said Selvaganapathy.

"Now some of the companies are interested in commercializing something like this." 

While many Canadians may be longing for the day when masks are no longer required, teams of researchers across Canada like Selvaganapathy's are working on creating the next generation of masks and personal protective equipment (PPE) for both health-care workers and the public.

Their hope is that if they make masks and other PPE more comfortable, safer, or easier to breathe in, there's a higher chance the general public will use some protective gear after the pandemic.

A hybrid face shield with a filter created for the anesthesiologists by McMaster University's team of researchers at the Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials (CEPEM). (McMaster University)

Benefits to masks

Selvaganapathy said there are benefits to people wearing a mask more regularly, as it could slow the spread of other viruses, like the flu or common cold, something many provinces have already seen this year.

Dr. James Dickinson, a professor of family medicine at the University of Calgary's Cumming School of Medicine, has said that COVID-19 measures in place — like mandatory mask-wearing rules and physical distancing — could be why there hasn't been a single lab-confirmed case of influenza in Alberta since September. 

Nova Scotia's health department spokesperson Marla MacInnis said a similar statement about that province's lower-than-average flu numbers.

Selvaganapathy said that's motivation to continue research on how to improve PPE and masks so people want to wear those items post-pandemic.

"I think we got used to the flu infections increasing in the fall and then decreasing in March. Our system is primed to handle that but we never got into thinking 'Can we reduce that?'" said Selvaganapathy, director of the CEPEM in Hamilton, Ont. The centre was created due to the pandemic and helps companies test and redesign PPE.

Using PPE post-pandemic

Patricia Dolez is leading a team at Edmonton's University of Alberta that's trying to make better PPE to help reduce the spread of COVID-19 and other diseases in the future.

They're developing a fabric treatment for medical gowns and masks that could kill viruses and bacteria on contact, Dolez said.

Patricia Dolez and her colleagues at the University of Alberta are working on a fabric treatment for medical gowns and masks that could kill viruses on contact. (Submitted by St. Paul's Hospital)

The researchers, who received a $50,000 Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada grant, are modifying a chlorine compound so that it can be used on masks or gowns.

"This is something that can really help a lot to reduce the propagation of COVID-19, but also any other viruses and bacteria that could be creating a lot of issues," said Dolez, an assistant professor in textile science in the university's human ecology department.

If successful in their testing, Dolez and her team would work with Logistik Unicorp, a uniform and safety equipment manufacturer, to manufacture products with the fabric treatment.

More efficient masks, PPE

Because PPE can help control more than just COVID-19, researchers in the field imagine the general public continuing to wear it post-pandemic — but only if the next generation of PPE is more catered to users' needs, Selvaganapathy said. 

"I think masks are likely to become more integrated into the sorts of things that ... people in the general public have normalized," said James Scott, head of occupational and environmental health at the University of Toronto's Dalla Lana School of Public Health.

"I think that as people have gone through this issue of COVID-19, I expect a number of them have probably been aware that there are things that normally make them sick on an annual basis that haven't made them sick."

Scott has been researching different mask materials and their effectiveness to block out airborne particles.   

He's been working with both companies and health-care professionals and is now testing how well masks work on mannequins that replicate breathing. 

Researchers at the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health are researching different mask materials and their effectiveness to block out airborne particles. (Marketplace/CBC News)

From here, Selvaganapathy expects more developments, like creating biodegradable PPE, or masks with a sensor warning front-line workers when it's time to throw out an item.

If people can be encouraged to wear improved masks post-pandemic, public health will benefit, he said.

"I think [there will be] lots of improvements that's going to come in the future where public health will be less burdened than they were before."

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