CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

Masking through Covid-19 in 2021

It’s been more than a year since Covid-19 hit India. Covid-19 is a disease caused by novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2. This virus causes contagious respiratory illnesses with potentially life-threatening complications. The best characterized symptoms of infectioninclude loss of taste and smell, cough, fever, difficulty in breathing and tiredness among others. Individuals with these are advised to get tested for coronavirus infection, and recommended appropriate quarantine and safety measures to curb immediate spread.

   But there are also people who carry the virus, and do not show any symptoms. They are one of the most difficult to trace. They are also considered one of the largest reasons for the spread of the infection.

   A newly emerged infection doesn’t always have established treatment regimes. Covid-19 is no exception. So, the primary strategy had been to limit the spread of coronavirus. India has tried nationwide lockdown first, followed by statewide and even more regional lockdowns. While lockdowns might contain the spread of virus, they have added a huge emotional and financial burden onto people. And we have now seen that as soon as the lockdowns are lifted, people’s interactions have been enough for the virus to spread. This has put an enormous toll on India’s healthcare system. Lockdowns are not sustainable over long periods of time, and we need to adopt a new living that still keeps us safe from the coronavirus infection and Covid-19. Let’s understand the elements of this new living, one at a time.

Wear masks – Cover your mouth and nose

   Masks, when worn to cover our mouths and noses, help prevent the spread of Covid-19. When we sneeze or even speak, we spit out aerosols into air from our mouths and noses. People around us inhale these aerosols. If we are infected with coronavirus, the aerosols from our sneeze can also infect other people around us. A mask simply blocks this spread. The mask wearer spreads lesser aerosols around them as well as protects themselves from aerosols to some extent. While there are several types of masks available, nearly each one of them work by reducing the spread of aerosols. This is alsowhy we find it slightly difficult to breathe while wearing them.

Masks are primarily divided into two types – medical and non-medical.

   Medical masks are designed generally with filters in place to prevent even small droplets in the air fromleaving and entering. The N95 particulate respirators and the 3 ply/surgical masks are examples of this. N95 masks filter out 95% particles from the air breathed through it whereas surgical masks remove 70% particles. Non-medical masks include those made of cotton or three mesh-layered masks designed to protect us from spreading large aerosol droplets.

L to R: cloth mask, surgical mask, N95 mask without and with respirator
(Source: https://www.bizjournals.com/charlotte/news/2020/09/01/a-guide-to-the-different-types-of-face-masks-and-h.html)

Avoiding crowds - Maintain distance of 2 arms length

   While masks work by preventing most of the aerosols from going out or coming at you, the effectiveness is also based on distance the aerosols travel. Let’s take an example of two scenarios concerning a gathering of you with two other people. In the first instance, you are less than one arm distance. If one of them sneezes, most of the aerosols will be contained by their mask (provided they are wearing it right). But a few will still go through. Now consider two arms’ length or six feet from each other. Now if anybody sneezes, because of the sheer distance separating them, many more aerosols that pass through will eventually fall down to any surface before they find another person as compared to the former situation.

   To prevent the spread of coronavirus, avoiding crowds is a must.

(Source: CDC)

Hand hygiene

   Let’s consider this scenario. A coronavirus positive individual, possibly unaware of their infection status, sneezes in a store. The aerosols containing the virus are littered across different surfaces of the room around them. It is known that the virus can last for upto a few hours on most surfaces. Now imagine yourself in that room, unaware of who has occupied the room or the events that may have occurred earlier. You can touch the contaminated surfaces and then your face or nose and pass on the virus into your body. An alternate scenario is where you frequently wash your hands or rub them with alcohol-based sanitizer. These help to break the virus particles and keep you safe from the virus you might have picked from surfaces especially in public spaces. It is also important to clean surfaces in common public areas.

Vaccination – Follow recommended guidelines

• Vaccines train our immune system to fight a microbial infection. There are three vaccines against Covid-19 available in India; and others are on the way. These are currently meant for individuals aged 18 years and above. All of them contain whole or parts of inactivated coronavirus that trains our immune system to be ready in case of a real infection. Most people get mild or no side-effects upon taking the vaccine. They are to be taken in doses as prescribed by the vaccine companies. The vaccines don’t prevent infection. However, those vaccinated have more manageable symptoms and have a lower need for hospitalization.
• For further reading on the vaccines available in India, refer the following fact sheets
  o Covishield - https://www.seruminstitute.com/product_covishield.php
  o Covaxin - https://www.bharatbiotech.com/images/covaxin/covaxin-fact-sheet.pdf
  o Sputnik V - https://sputnikvaccine.com/about-vaccine/
• It is also important to acknowledge that vaccination drive will work against Covid-19 only when most of us take the vaccine. In absence of that, newer variants of the coronavirus can arise. These newer variants can undermine the immune training done with vaccines made from older variants.
• Individuals with symptoms similar to that of Covid-19 infection are advised to consult their doctor prior to vaccination.

(Source: https://www.cowin.gov.in/home)

In summary,

(Source: CDC)

   In the last one year of Covid-19, a lot has changed about our daily lives. We wear a piece of cloth on our faces that we aren’t used to. In a country like India with a rich cultural heritage, festivals hold an important place in our lives. Physical distancing norms don’t allow them the way we are used to. We might fear vaccines or needles; in general. But these are the best ways right now for all of us to follow and fight the virus.

Edited by:
Dr Somdatta Karak
Science Communication and Public Outreach Officer
CSIR-Centre for Cellular and Molecular Biology

For more details on the vaccination in India, refer