Understanding how face masks and disposable aprons reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other infections

Reducing the spread of infectious diseases in healthcare and aged care facilities is vital to the health and safety of the patients, residents and staff.  Face masks and disposable aprons are useful as part of a host of strategies to reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other infections.

How does Covid-19 spread?

In order to understand the effectiveness of face masks and disposable aprons in reducing the transmission of Covid-19 and other infections, it is important to understand how these diseases spread in the first place.

The primary mechanism for the transmission of Covid-19 is via direct or indirect contact with infected respiratory droplets (Clinical Excellence Commission 2021). Respiratory droplets are produced by breathing, talking, coughing, sneezing and other such behaviours, and cause infection when they are inhaled or come into contact with the mucous membrane of the mouth, nose or eyes (Clinical Excellence Commission 2021). 

People most at risk of becoming infected are those that come into close contact with someone that is contagious (1.5m) or encounters increased exposure to respiratory particles (such as being in an enclosed space with an infectious individual) (Clinical Excellence Commission 2021).

In summary, Covid-19 is spread by coming into contact with infected respiratory droplets, either by being in close contact with an infected individual, coming into contact with respiratory particles in the air or by coming into contact with contaminated material or surfaces.

How can face masks reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other infections?

Face masks are an important method for reducing the risk of spreading Covid-19 and other respiratory infections and play two major functions:

  1. Face masks reduce the risk of splashes or sprays from reaching the mouth or nose of the person wearing them (NHMRC 2019). As discussed in the previous section Covid-19 is transmitted by coming into contact with the mucous membrane of the mouth or nose, therefore wearing a covering can help reduce the chance of droplets settling on the mucous membrane.
  2. Face masks can also provide some protection from respiratory secretions, therefore, if they are worn by infected patients they can limit the potential dissemination of infectious respiratory secretions from the patient to others (NHMRC 2019).

It should be noted, however, that face masks are only recommended in environments where there is a low risk of Covid-19 transmission, where in areas of high risk of Covid-19 transmission (such as where there is a confirmed case of Covid-19) it is recommended to wear a particulate filter respirator (Infection Control Expert Group 2021).

How can disposable aprons reduce the spread of Covid-19 and other infections?

Aprons and gowns are pieces of personal protective equipment that cover the arms and body and are impervious to fluids. When worn properly aprons can help prevent the contamination of clothing with blood, body substances, secretions or excretions (NHMRC 2019). This can help prevent infectious droplets like Covid-19 from landing on the clothing or body and then later being transferred to the mucous membrane.

To ensure that disposable aprons are effective however it is vital to follow the correct guidelines for safely donning and doffing PPE.

Clinical Excellence Commission 2021, ‘COVID-19 Infection Prevention and Control Manual’, viewed 17 September 2021, https://www.cec.health.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0018/644004/COVID-19-IPAC-manual.pdf

Infection Control Expert Group 2021, ‘Guidance on the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers in the context of COVID-19’, viewed 17 September 2021, https://www.health.gov.au/sites/default/files/documents/2021/06/guidance-on-the-use-of-personal-protective-equipment-ppe-for-health-care-workers-in-the-context-of-covid-19.pdf

NHMRC 2019, ‘Australian Guidelines for the Prevention and Control of Infection in Healthcare’, viewed 17 September 2021, https://www.safetyandquality.gov.au/sites/default/files/2021-05/australian_guidelines_for_the_prevention_and_control_of_infection_in_health_care_-_current_version_-_v11.6_11_may_2021.pdf

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