Whether to wear a face mask or not has been a controversial issue throughout this pandemic, with some authorities encouraging universal face mask wearing from the beginning while others have only recently taken the same approach. Inconsistent advice on this has sometimes led to unpleasant incidents, with proponents from one camp seeing the actions of others as highly irresponsible.
Logically, there are two reasons for wearing protective equipment such as face masks: either to protect the wearer or to prevent an infected wearer from passing infection on to anyone else.
Scientific studies into the protection that face masks give to the wearer have been inconclusive and as a result authorities such as the World Health Organization and many of the disease control agencies of Europe and North America did not initially recommend their use by the general public, unless a person had symptoms of respiratory illness.
As our understanding of the Covid-19 pandemic has developed it has become apparent that those who pushed for the use of face masks were probably right, as we now know that many infections (possibly more than half) are contracted from a person without symptoms.
In response, many authorities, though not all, have now changed their recommendations and the wearing of face masks by everyone is becoming standard advice. This approach has received some support from studies showing that droplet spread is indeed reduced if a fabric face mask is worn when coughing or speaking.
Things never stand still for long though and the latest trend is the use of face shields instead of face masks; a common sight on television now and increasingly seen also in restaurants and other commercial venues.
Face shields have for some time been part of the personal protective equipment worn by health workers when dealing with highly infectious patients and were developed as a more comfortable alternative to elasticated eye goggles. They were designed to be used in addition to face masks, not instead of them.
Although face shields have been shown to stop coughed droplets from hitting the wearer’s face when social distancing cannot be maintained (such as when health workers examine and treat infected patients) we are not aware of any scientific studies into their role as a device to prevent onward spread of infection by the wearer and so BeWell does not recommend their use as a replacement for a face mask.
One of the notable things about this pandemic, however, is that the absence of evidence hasn’t necessarily stopped new interventions being taken up and the face shield as a blocker of droplets from the person wearing it has a certain common sense appeal.
Additionally, there are some clear advantages (!) to using a face shield instead of a face mask: they are more comfortable, permit lip reading, and greatly improve face recognition and inter-personal communication (although perhaps not by telephone).
The post-lockdown phase of this pandemic will probably require continued measures against viral infection for a long time to come and it seems likely that people will increasingly push for approaches that are more socially acceptable. Whether proven or not, face shields may well become the look of the future.
The Be Well Team