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Experts weigh in on protective face coverings

Mar 04,2020
Recent pronouncements by politicians notwithstanding, health experts have simple advice when it comes to wearing protective masks amid the coronavirus outbreak: Wear fresh ones when possible, and if you must reuse a mask, sterilize it first.

“If disposable masks are reused, they should be dried for more than an hour in the sun. Layering clean gauze on a used mask is another option to avoid germs grown from saliva,” said Jeong Ki-seok, a former director of the Korea Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a professor of respiratory medicine at Hallym University Sacred Heart Hospital. “But we don’t recommend spraying disinfectants on the mask because it will go inside the nose and mouth,” he added.

Ruling Democratic Party Chairman Lee Hae-chan said Monday at the National Assembly that he uses a single mask for up to three days, while a coronavirus patient quarantined at a hospital in Daegu said he has been using the same mask for four days. Those in the epidemiology field, however, recommend against that tactic.

“There is no clear scientific basis for adding gauze to the mask or sterilizing using alcohol and heat,” Kim Sang-bong, a director of the pharmaceutical policy division at the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety, said. “However, germs can grow from a wet mask, so it is better not to reuse it. The level of contamination varies depending on the area, so making specific recommendations on the time of use is a challenge,” he said.

The Ministry of Food and Drug Safety says it will release guidelines on the appropriate use of masks to the public in the next few days.

“If there is no replaceable mask, one can reuse it depending on the degree of contamination of the mask,” Food and Drug Safety Minister Lee Eui-kyung said last Wednesday at a briefing.

Unlike cloth masks, some disposable masks include a filter made from a special type of plastic that uses static electricity to attract and trap microscopic particles.

“If a single-use mask filter loses its static electricity, it’s the same as wearing a nonwoven fabric,” said Song Eun-ho, a manager at local mask manufacturer E&W. “Single-day use is recommended on a fine day with good air quality. There is a higher risk of bacterial growth when the mask is not dried properly.”

Lee Hun-jae, a professor of epidemiology at Inha University School of Medicine, also drew a distinction between disposable masks and fabric ones.

“If you don’t have an extra mask, it’s better to reuse disposable ones than fabric masks. Some say that they microwave the mask for sterilization purposes, but it would be better to dry it in the sun,” Lee said. “And try to use it only when visiting a crowded place,” he said.

Experts also urge people to wash their hands with alcohol disinfectant before applying masks and to make sure there are no gaps between the masks and their faces when wearing them.

BY JEONG JONG-HOON, YI WOO-LIM [kim.yeonah@joongang.co.kr]