More than a year into the pandemic, and I endeavor to understand why, on certain occasions, we allow face shields to take the place of masks.
The more we understand about the coronavirus, the more we should be modifying behavior around this knowledge. We know that science around the coronavirus evolves on a daily basis, which is why it’s so important for policymakers and health providers to keep abreast of updates.
The growing acknowledgment of airborne COVID-19 transmission should prompt each of us to examine our health precautions, and prompt health authorities and workplaces to re-evaluate their policies. In the first place, we’ve seen a lot of nonsensical “interventions” in the Philippines, described as combating COVID-19 but in reality being based on zero science: spraying cars with disinfectants before admission into specific barangays and “aerial surveys” (for what?) being a few. There is also increasing support to discourage “overzealous cleaning,” or the aggressive quarantining and wiping down of packages and groceries for fear of transmission. Considering resources spent by workplaces on “deep cleaning” and chemical spraying, new advisories on minimal risk from surface transmission should help make interventions more cost-effective.
The other protective measures still make sense, including appropriate mask wearing and face shield wearing. Masks, appropriately worn, should still provide protection against airborne transmission, and the (admittedly limited) evidence on the use of regular face shields points to some additional benefit in reducing transmission. We are also advised to continue proper reporting of symptoms and isolation or quarantine when needed. The updates should also prompt a paradigm shift toward better ventilation, and continued discouragement of indoor gatherings.
Given all of the above, I am still bewildered at why we continue to allow, on certain occasions, the use of flimsy plastic barriers and regular face shields in lieu of, and not an addition to, face masks. I am thinking of the viral video of artist Moira dela Torre singing at an event with what has humorously been called a “face shield Pro Max” by social media users — a clear barrier, perhaps of acrylic, that she rolled around on wheels while performing. She also shared her mic with a guest who was not wearing a mask appropriately. It’s not just her, though. Local television shows regularly feature hosts and performers wearing face shields but not masks. Just this week I caught a variety show episode celebrating a certain celebrity’s birthday; at one point there was a small crowd on stage, in a venue that was not outdoors, with few (perhaps none) of them wearing face masks, but many sporting face shields. Unfortunately, this is not an isolated occurrence.
There is no evidence that face shields alone, especially the flimsy ones we often buy with gaps on the bottom and sides, are an appropriate substitute for masks in preventing COVID-19 transmission. (An exception may be groups who cannot wear masks, like very young children.) There is increasing evidence that airborne transmission is significant, rendering barriers like the “face shield Pro Max” useless in an enclosed venue, with both performer and guests unmasked, the performer stepping close to the audience, and even sharing microphones. Moreover, even if all performers or entertainers are tested prior to admission into a venue, all evidence on incubation and transmission would still support the wearing of face masks. Therefore: why? I am writing not to single out or vilify artists trying to make a living, but to emphasize that venues and companies have a responsibility to enforce measures that have a basis in fact, rather than ignoring proven protocols and enforcing useless ones to make themselves feel safer. It’s not impossible, and in light of our high number of cases, is surely worth the effort. One cannot help but think of Lady Gaga, who performed at the Video Music Awards with a mask on, and global stars BTS, who made their acceptance speeches at award shows wearing face masks. Strengthening protocols is not just for the benefit of individuals involved, but of audiences in front of TV or computer screens. One of COVID-19’s enduring lessons is the importance of clear, unambiguous messaging. Exempting such circumstances from evidence-based protocols is confusing and harmful, especially for those at home who might not have the resources to know better.
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