By Anil Menon
May 14, 2021 at 5:00 am ET
Faced with new COVID variants and a surge in the number of infections, European countries have begun to tighten mask regulations in the hope of slowing the spread of the virus. In January 2021, two German states and Austria mandated using medical-grade face masks and FFP2 (filtering) masks in the workplace, on public transportation, and in retail shops.
“If the virus becomes more dangerous, the mask has to get better,” said Minister-President of Bavaria Markus Söder.
France followed suit with a recommendation to wear surgical masks in public, with its Health Advisory Council noting that while cloth masks may be preferred because they can be washed and reused, they “do not guarantee protection against new variants.”
And here in the United States to improve the effectiveness of masking, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention called on Americans to consider double masking to help control the spread of COVID-19 and, as recently as April 27, continues to recommend that Americans mask up, even post-vaccination.
The key question is whether that is enough.
Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, using personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, has proven an essential and effective tool for combating the spread of coronavirus. But what more can the United States do as a society to prepare for newly formed variants and other public health crises that will emerge?
The confusion and tragic mistakes of a reactive approach to the current pandemic have underscored the urgency of preparing for future public health challenges in a more strategic and proactive manner and the importance of embracing the latest technologies to improve our collective response. That includes incorporating the latest technologies in PPE: disinfecting technologies in textiles.
Just as COVID-19 accelerated historic breakthroughs in vaccine development, it has also triggered innovations in PPE technology that are being applied for the first time in the United States, including fabrics that disrupt and disarm pathogenic microbes — literally killing or deactivating them on contact. In an effort led by the Singapore-based Temasek Foundation, the Singaporean government has adopted this technology in its masks and distributed them to citizens to reduce the spread of pathogens dramatically.
With the Biden administration shipping 25 million masks to community health centers and food banks across the country, the time is now to leverage this technology to help keep our nation even safer. Rather than just providing more of the older forms of protection, the administration should be providing newer and smarter protection.
The industry has worked with older anti-microbial technologies involve soaking or coating fabrics in chemicals, such as chlorine. Those treatments can result in fabrics that leach potentially harmful toxins and lose their effectiveness over time. In contrast, newer technologies embed anti-microbial and anti-viral properties into the finishing of the fabric similar to dyes that are applied to untreated textile. The result is that these masks and PPE do not release harmful substances, don’t leach, are free of toxic metals and can withstand multiple washes without diminishing their ability to disable viruses and kill bacteria continuously. This all but eliminates the need for disposable masks and daily mask washing, creating a significant environmental benefit by reducing energy and water consumption, waste, and the need for raw materials.
After more than a year of staggering pandemic-related illnesses and nearly 600,000 deaths in the United States alone, we must deploy every available tool to bring this pandemic to heel. The Biden administration should embrace the innovations the pandemic is generating and choose the best available technology for all Americans to continue to mask up and to be best protected in the future — whatever it might bring.
Anil Menon is the executive vice president of community and urban services at Sharecare, a health and wellness engagement platform, and sits on the Board of Advisors for Livinguard, an innovative and environmentally friendly hygiene technology company that develops textiles and other materials with self-disinfecting properties.
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