Canadian mask makers prepare for change as COVID-19 variants spread

Experts say three-layer masks remain effective as long as it fits tightly and is worn properly

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      As highly contagious variants of the COVID-19 virus begin to spread in Canada and elsewhere, some public health officials around the world are switching up face mask advice.

      Variants first found in South Africa and the U.K. have been cropping up in Canada, including the B117 variant from the U.K., which studies show is as at least 56 percent more transmissible than the original strain of the virus.

      B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stated on January 29 that there are seven cases of the variant from the U.K. and four cases of the variant from South Africa in B.C.

      Meanwhile, there were 51 confirmed cases of the U.K. variant in Ontario, as of January 28.

      To prevent further community transmission of COVID-19 variants, upping the standard for mask wearing might be the next step for the country.

      In the United States, Dr. Anthony Fauci, chief medical advisor to President Joe Biden has said that “double-masking”, or wearing one mask on top of another, will be more effective at preventing droplets of the virus from getting in.

      Currently, Canada recommends using three-layer masks with a filter layer in the middle according to a November update to public health guidelines.

      However, the World Health Organization said on January 29 that officials do not plan on updating guidelines around using fabric masks, though France and Germany now advise people to wear medical-grade masks, instead of fabric ones, in public spaces.

      Face masks have also been a lifeline for some Toronto businesses during the pandemic, but local designers say they are used to incorporating evolving public health guidelines into their work.

      Melanie Wong, owner of athleisure clothing company Olive and Splash, started creating masks at the beginning of the pandemic. Since then, she’s designed around nine different iterations.

      “When face masks first came out, nobody really knew about masking,” she says. “There were so many different health conditions, from lungs to yeast infections in the mouth that we were hearing about. We had to figure out how we could tailor a mask to fit all different kinds of lifestyles, environment, personal preferences while following government regulations as well.”

      Currently, Wong offers masks with two layers, three layers, and even four layers.

      “If guidelines were changed to incorporate medical layer into [masks], we would be happy to do so,” Wong says. “We’re here, we’re ready and willing to do whatever is recommended.”

      Mask fit versus layers

      Zain Chagla, infectious disease physician and associate professor at McMaster University, says the current guidelines in Canada recommending three-layer masks still make sense and will still be effective in prevention of spread.

      “We’re talking in the United States about mask on top of a mask, but three-layer cloth masks are essentially three masks in one,” he says. “But it’s a whole lot easier to wear one mask rather than three masks.”

      Chagla says an important consideration for mask effectiveness is the fit of the masks.

      “One of the rationales for wearing two masks isn’t necessarily for more filtration but that tightness actually increases so the mask has a tighter fit around the face,” he says.

      Sydney Mamane, founder of Toronto clothing shop Sydney’s, says that it was important for him to include a nose wire in the design of his masks for that reason.

      “It molds down along the nose so you get a better fit and it’s quite secure on the face,” he says. “If you layer it over an N-95 mask, it almost matches it exactly, so it’s the idea of an N-95, but without the extremity of it.”

      Chagla recommends checking to make sure your mask isn’t constantly falling off or sliding down your face to ensure it’s a tight enough fit.

      “You shouldn’t really be feeling a lot of a breeze under your face and on the sides of your face if you’re walking around because again, it should be quite secure along the sides as well,” he says.

      It’s important to be able to wear it for long periods of time for many people, so Chagla says it’s best if you don’t have to be constantly adjusting it and potentially contaminating your hands as well.

      Ultimately, Chagla says that while some of the new variants may be more transmissible, there’s nothing particularly different about how they infect people.

      “We should probably make sure that what we’re using is appropriate, not necessarily that everything has to change immediately,” he says.

      Kingi Carpenter, founder and designer behind Queen West’s Peach Beserk, says that she would change her designs the moment there is word from a “reliable source” that masks should be made differently.

      “The great thing about small businesses, we’re so adaptable, so if we needed to change things, we could change it in a day,” she says.

      Carpenter’s business has always emphasized low-waste and up-cycling practices, so she says that she would try to make sure none of her current masks would go to waste if she had to update the design.

      “If possible I would retrofit them, and I’ve actually taken some of the masks and made them into pockets on my skirts,” she says.

      Regardless of waste, however, Carpenter says that she would immediately follow any changes to mask protocol as a face mask designer.

      “This is a medical thing, and it’s kind of a life-and-death thing,” she says. “If I were told that we should change them, we would do it in that day. We would just change it.”

      With files from Craig Takeuchi.