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Ohio University students wearing N-95 masks while going through Baker Center on Wednesday, Jan. 17, 2022.

How high filtration masks slow spread of COVID-19, impact pollution

Ohio University recently announced its change to masking requirements, encouraging the use of surgical, KN95, N95 or KF94 masks, to help slow the spread of COVID-19, but the decision comes with both pros and cons.

James Gaskell, health commissioner at the Athens City-County Health Department, said the N95 and KN95 are the “golden standard” for masks.

“With omicron circulating in addition to the delta variant and causing an unprecedented rise in cases, the COVID-19 environment is very different than it was for Fall Semester,” Gillian Ice, special assistant to the president for public health operations, said in an email. “The current environment necessitates a more rigorous approach to prevention.” 

Surgical masks are not as effective as N95 and KN95 masks, but they are more preventative in curbing transmission compared to homemade or cloth masks, Gaskell said.

“Cloth masks … prevent you from delivering the virus but don't protect you so much from receiving it,” Gaskell said. “They're (cloth masks) about 60% effective at blocking viral transmission.”

Surgical masks have a higher efficacy rate at 99% and they prevent people from expelling droplets into the environment, Gaskell said. Research also suggests they are about only 75-80% effective in preventing reception of the virus, he said. 

Sam Crowl, associate director of sustainability at OU, said as of right now it is hard to determine how much of an impact disposable masks have had on the environment. 

“The main thing for me is I make sure that I dispose of them (masks) properly,'' Crowl said. “They cause a problem like any other plastic.”

Crowl also said when surgical masks are not disposed of properly they are likely to break down into microplastics, and end up in our waterways, which is a major problem currently impacting the environment.

“The masks that I see that are litter that bother me are mostly surgical masks,” Crowl said. “When those are in the gutter, they're most likely to end up in our stormwater system putting down our drains which just run to the Hocking river.”

Even though disposable surgical masks may contribute to increased pollution since the pandemic started, they are also easily accessible to the general public. 

Gaskell said the health department is not using N95 masks due to the availability and necessity for them in hospitals. Rather, the health department is using surgical masks and supplying them to individuals who enter the department with a cloth mask on. 

“The N95’s are more expensive, they're harder to obtain because the hospitals are using them a lot,” Gaskell said. “In general, I'd advise surgical masks.” 

According to a previous Post report, masks are available to students at the fourth-floor service desk in Baker, on the second and fourth-floor service desks in Alden Library and at Ping center. 

Individuals with disabilities who do not have an approved exemption and are unable to adhere to the new facial covering requirements are able to request an accommodation through the Office for University Accessibility, Ice said. 


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