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Analysis: When scientists spar over masks

Connecticut Post logo Connecticut Post 9/24/2020 By Jordan Fenster
a close up of a bag: In early January, 3M was making 22 million respirators per month in the United States. By October, the company says, it will have increased production to 95 million respirators per month. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard © Provided by Connecticut Post

In early January, 3M was making 22 million respirators per month in the United States. By October, the company says, it will have increased production to 95 million respirators per month. MUST CREDIT: Photo for The Washington Post by Amanda Voisard

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Here’s something you should already know: N95 masks are better at stopping the spread of viral particles than the homemade kind.

But here’s where it gets interesting (if you think scientists sparring in publicly published papers about the value of do-it-yourself masks is interesting). All the way back in April (remember April? We were so innocent then) a paper was published, and widely circulated by the media, suggesting that cloth face masks were about as effective as N95 masks.

This was followed by much beating of chests in the science community.

Shortly thereafter, a rather extensive correction was published explaining (in dense, sciency language) that the research was, well sort of flawed, which is right and good.

Now, a UConn researcher has teamed up with colleagues at Yale and the U.S. Coast Guard Academy to out-science the original research. It’s as scathing a retort as you can expect from lab coat-wearing researchers.

First the conclusions: Four layers of cloth is better than two. N95 masks are better than surgical, which are better than homemade silk masks, with cotton at the bottom. Don’t even ask about chiffon.

The comment itself goes into excruciating detail about flow dynamics and force and particle size, all in an effort to say, using the language of science, that the original research had little to no validity.

Though UConn’s Jason Hancock did write that “we concur and emphasize that common materials are useful and are highly recommended to the public as reusable filtration media for masks during a pandemic,” the results of his own experiments are clear:

“Common materials are not to be conflated with N95 masks in any way, as initially suggested.”

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