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Seeing is believing: Effectiveness of facemasks

June 30, 2020

Currently, there are no specific guidelines on the most effective materials and designs for facemasks to minimize the spread of droplets from coughs or sneezes to mitigate the transmission of COVID-19. While there have been prior studies on how medical-grade masks perform, data on cloth-based coverings used by the vast majority of the general public are sparse.

Research from Florida Atlantic University's College of Engineering and Computer Science, just published in the journal Physics of Fluids, demonstrates through visualization of emulated coughs and sneezes, a method to assess the effectiveness of facemasks in obstructing droplets. The rationale behind the recommendation for using masks or other face coverings is to reduce the risk of cross-infection via the transmission of respiratory droplets from infected to healthy individuals.

Researchers employed flow visualization in a laboratory setting using a laser light sheet and a mixture of distilled water and glycerin to generate the synthetic fog that made up the content of a cough-jet. They visualized droplets expelled from a mannequin's mouth while simulating coughing and sneezing. They tested masks that are readily available to the general public, which do not draw away from the supply of medical-grade masks and respirators for healthcare workers. They tested a single-layer bandana-style covering, a homemade mask that was stitched using two-layers of cotton quilting fabric consisting of 70 threads per inch, and a non-sterile cone-style mask that is available in most pharmacies. By placing these various masks on the mannequin, they were able to map out the paths of droplets and demonstrate how differently they perform.

Results showed that loosely folded facemasks and bandana-style coverings provide minimal stopping-capability for the smallest aerosolized respiratory droplets. Well-fitted homemade masks with multiple layers of quilting fabric, and off-the-shelf cone style masks, proved to be the most effective in reducing droplet dispersal. These masks were able to curtail the speed and range of the respiratory jets significantly, albeit with some leakage through the mask material and from small gaps along the edges.

Importantly, uncovered emulated coughs were able to travel noticeably farther than the currently recommended 6-foot distancing guideline. Without a mask, droplets traveled more than 8 feet; with a bandana, they traveled 3 feet, 7 inches; with a folded cotton handkerchief, they traveled 1 foot, 3 inches; with the stitched quilted cotton mask, they traveled 2.5 inches; and with the cone-style mask, droplets traveled about 8 inches.

"In addition to providing an initial indication of the effectiveness of protective equipment, the visuals used in our study can help convey to the general public the rationale behind social-distancing guidelines and recommendations for using facemasks," said Siddhartha Verma, Ph.D., lead author and an assistant professor who co-authored the paper with Manhar Dhanak, Ph.D., department chair, professor, and director of SeaTech; and John Frakenfeld, technical paraprofessional, all within FAU's Department of Ocean and Mechanical Engineering. "Promoting widespread awareness of effective preventive measures is crucial at this time as we are observing significant spikes in cases of COVID-19 infections in many states, especially Florida."

When the mannequin was not fitted with a mask, they projected droplets much farther than the 6-foot distancing guidelines currently recommended by the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The researchers observed droplets traveling up to 12 feet within approximately 50 seconds. Moreover, the tracer droplets remained suspended midair for up to three minutes in the quiescent environment. These observations, in combination with other recent studies, suggest that current social-distancing guidelines may need to be updated to account for aerosol-based transmission of pathogens.

"We found that although the unobstructed turbulent jets were observed to travel up to 12 feet, a large majority of the ejected droplets fell to the ground by this point," said Dhanak. "Importantly, both the number and concentration of the droplets will decrease with increasing distance, which is the fundamental rationale behind social-distancing."

The pathogen responsible for COVID-19 is found primarily in respiratory droplets that are expelled by infected individuals during coughing, sneezing, or even talking and breathing. Apart from COVID-19, respiratory droplets also are the primary means of transmission for various other viral and bacterial illnesses, such as the common cold, influenza, tuberculosis, SARS (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome), and MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome), to name a few. These pathogens are enveloped within respiratory droplets, which may land on healthy individuals and result in direct transmission, or on inanimate objects, which can lead to infection when a healthy individual comes in contact with them.

"Our researchers have demonstrated how masks are able to significantly curtail the speed and range of the respiratory droplets and jets. Moreover, they have uncovered how emulated coughs can travel noticeably farther than the currently recommended six-foot distancing guideline," said Stella Batalama, Ph.D., dean of FAU's College of Engineering and Computer Science. "Their research outlines the procedure for setting up simple visualization experiments using easily available materials, which may help healthcare professionals, medical researchers, and manufacturers in assessing the effectiveness of face masks and other personal protective equipment qualitatively."
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About FAU's College of Engineering and Computer Science:

The FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science is internationally recognized for cutting edge research and education in the areas of computer science and artificial intelligence (AI), computer engineering, electrical engineering, bioengineering, civil, environmental and geomatics engineering, mechanical engineering, and ocean engineering. Research conducted by the faculty and their teams expose students to technology innovations that push the current state-of-the art of the disciplines. The College research efforts are supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF), the National Institutes of Health (NIH), the Department of Defense (DOD), the Department of Transportation (DOT), the Department of Education (DOEd), the State of Florida, and industry. The FAU College of Engineering and Computer Science offers degrees with a modern twist that bear specializations in areas of national priority such as AI, cybersecurity, internet-of-things, transportation and supply chain management, and data science. New degree programs include Masters of Science in AI (first in Florida), Masters of Science in Data Science and Analytics, and the new Professional Masters of Science degree in computer science for working professionals. For more information about the College, please visit eng.fau.edu.

About Florida Atlantic University:

Florida Atlantic University, established in 1961, officially opened its doors in 1964 as the fifth public university in Florida. Today, the University, with an annual economic impact of $6.3 billion, serves more than 30,000 undergraduate and graduate students at sites throughout its six-county service region in southeast Florida. FAU's world-class teaching and research faculty serves students through 10 colleges: the Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters, the College of Business, the College for Design and Social Inquiry, the College of Education, the College of Engineering and Computer Science, the Graduate College, the Harriet L. Wilkes Honors College, the Charles E. Schmidt College of Medicine, the Christine E. Lynn College of Nursing and the Charles E. Schmidt College of Science. FAU is ranked as a High Research Activity institution by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. The University is placing special focus on the rapid development of critical areas that form the basis of its strategic plan: Healthy aging, biotech, coastal and marine issues, neuroscience, regenerative medicine, informatics, lifespan and the environment. These areas provide opportunities for faculty and students to build upon FAU's existing strengths in research and scholarship. For more information, visit fau.edu.

Florida Atlantic University

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