As former President of Sino-Micro, The Overseas Chinese Society for Microbiology, FST Professor Hua Wang was thinking about coronavirus long before it arrived in the United States. “In January, they already had a shortage of PPE in Wuhan. While masks have been essential for protection, the disposable medical mask production capacity would not meet the demand for global mask-wearing. And I started thinking, ‘how could I help?’” Wang said. But what is a scientist locked out of her lab to do?
“In the old days, doctors used to wear reusable masks made of gauze. But gauze is too loose to prevent a virus from spreading. Could cotton cloth with tighter structure work instead?” Wang wondered. She could not find any literature demonstrating the efficacy of cotton cloth masks in blocking virus particles. “I couldn’t go find a virologist with such experience either. I didn’t have access to my lab. What could I do during lockdown?” At home without her equipment, the microbiologist got resourceful. “I knew I couldn’t get a virus particle to experiment with. Then I thought ‘wait, water is good enough!’” she laughed. “All you need to do is to validate that the size of the water molecule is small enough to demonstrate your point. That’s what we do in science—we’re always looking for surrogates. And yes, the water molecule is much smaller than any known virus particle.” Thus, the kitchen experiments began.
The process itself was simple and the results were immediate. “I thought about how to replicate the force of a sneeze or cough and I arrived at a water spray bottle. I got my spray bottle and then I got a few pieces of the cloth I used to make my mask and I used it to cover the side of the bottle. I put a piece of white paper on the kitchen table and then I just sprayed toward it,” Wang explained. While the data was not quantifiable in this setting, the results were clear. “If I don’t have the cloth, the paper gets wet right away. If I put one layer of cloth, it significantly blocks the water particles. If I use three layers, the paper is pretty much dry. What does that tell us? Protection is proportional to the number of layers. It is very effective.” Dr. Wang simulated social distancing by moving the piece of paper further away from the spray bottle, which increased the effectiveness.
Cloth mask wearing not only protects the public, but it also saves valuable PPE resources. “Once the general public is not competing with the healthcare professionals for supplies, the limited high-grade medical PPE can be saved for our doctors and nurses. Once the virus spread can be reduced from the sources and asymptomatic carriers, our society, including essential workers like cashiers and bus drivers, will be better protected,” the professor urged. “Cotton cloth is easily accessible in every household. A cotton t-shirt or bedsheet can be used to make masks.”
In March, Hua disseminated her findings far and wide—to friends and colleagues, to University leadership, to senators Brown and Portman, and asked assistance to spread the word to Governor DeWine. She further directly communicated with a long list of public media and social chat groups with broad coverage from the east to west coast, as well as the CDC. “I even sent this home experiment to our neighborhood mailing list and encouraged people to do this simple science experiment with their children,” she said. “You can add dye to the water to make it more fun. Help your children get involved in science and understand why it’s important to wear a mask.”
The results of the kitchen experiments were later backed up by quantifiable research. Research out of MIT demonstrating the benefits of mask-wearing in stopping saliva particles and aerosols was published in the New England Journal of Medicine in May, three months after Hua Wang was working in her kitchen. Thanks to the advocacy of Dr. Wang and scientists like her, the messaging around masks changed. Since late March, government authorities and public media started to encourage cloth mask-wearing nationwide.
Beyond the initial mixed messaging from the CDC and White House about the effectiveness of cloth masks, there were also cultural hurdles to increased adoption of the practice. “People in the U.S. do not want to wear a mask. They have the perception that only sick people wear masks,” Wang said. “So, I told people, take a picture of yourself in your cloth mask and put it on social media. Make it fashionable. Spread the image of healthy person in a mask.” These creative steps can lead to increased mask wearing and not only save lives but also ease our coronavirus anxiety. “If I go out and people are wearing masks, as a microbiologist, I feel protected. I don’t worry as much,” Hua mentioned.
As we begin this unprecedented school year, every Return to Campus kit includes two reusable masks, much like the ones Dr. Wang sewed in her home in the early days of the virus. “I’m still using the two masks I made in February. It’s sustainable and effective and you can save those N-95 masks for the healthcare workers who really need them.” Dr. Wang encourages everyone to wear their masks and to sanitize them every few days. Bleach, soap, and boiling water are all effective. According to the CDC, laundering is also effective. Armed with scientific evidence, social distancing, and our masks, we can slow the spread of the coronavirus. Mask up, Buckeyes!