Inspired by guide from HK scientists, Filipina domestic worker makes her own reusable face mask

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Long queues, high prices, no assurance of availability – all of these prompted Zenaida B., a Filipina domestic helper in Hong Kong, to make her own reusable face masks not only for her but also for her employers.

The commodity has been a prized item in the city, where people lined up for hours to buy surgical face masks in a bid to protect themselves from being infected with novel coronavirus (COVID-19), which has infected at least 62 people in Hong Kong, including a Filipina domestic worker, and killed two.

“Pumunta po minsan boss ko sa Watson’s, pero wala na pong nabili,” she said. “Ang haba-haba po ng pila.”

A box of face masks could fetch for as much as $300, more than triple of its usual prize of $50.

She said her employers initially tried to improvise and make their own face masks by using old handkerchiefs. But Zenaida said she has heard from news reports that cloth face masks are not an effective deterrent for the virus, which is mainly transmitted through droplets.

Zenaida instead took her cue from a do-it-yourself face mask guide developed by scientists from the University of Hong Kong-Shenzhen Hospital and Science Park.

The guide, which was also reported by the South China Morning Post on Feb.14, told the public that they can create their own face masks with tissues and file folder as materials.

Tissues and toilet rolls, however, have also been scarce in supermarkets lately after people engaged in panic buying in the recent weeks following spurious news that mainland China will be unable to supply them due to COVID-19.

It has become such a coveted article that armed men stole 600 rolls of toilet paper from a delivery man outside a Wellcome store in Mong Kok.

“Nung Saturday na yun, nagtahi na talaga ko, dalawang layers, taas gumamit rin ako plastic galing sa manipis na folder,” she told Hong Kong news on Feb.16.

“Kailangan plastic, hindi puwede cloth lang,” she said.

The plastic sheet will be inserted between the two layers, adding another layer for protection. The plastic material will be replaced every day. The mask, made up of tablecloth, will also be washed on a daily basis.

Zenaida has sewn three face masks – one for herself, and one each for the married couple she works for.

“Sinubukan nila kasi baka hindi makahinga. Pero okay daw po, nakakahinga sila,” she said. “Tuwang-tuwa po sila.”

Experts have said that while cloth masks may not be as effective as compared to surgical masks because of the differences in their level or porosity, they could work in maintaining proper hygiene, however. Eco-Business quoted Professor Seeram Ramakrishna, chairman of the Circular Economy Taskforce at the National University of Singapore, who said that cloth masks could still help prevent the transfer of large particulates between people.

The Health Promotion Branch of the Department of Health told Hong Kong News that a face mask, should have three layers in order for it to be an effective barrier against fluids and respiratory droplets.

“A proper surgical mask should adopt a three-layer design, including an outer fluid-repelling layer, a middle layer serves as a barrier to germs, and an inner moisture-absorbing layer,” the agency said in an email.

“Mask without the above functions is not recommended for prevention of respiratory tract infection as it cannot provide adequate protection against infectious diseases transmitted by respiratory droplets.”

Infectious diseases physician Edsel Maurice Salvana said that people need not wear masks in the first place if they don’t have any symptoms.

“If they don’t have symptoms, no need for mask per World Health Organization. If they have respiratory symptoms, surgical mask is recommended,” he said.

“Part of the problem is people wanting to use surgical and even n95 masks when they don’t have to. That’s why there is a shortage.”

However, some experts have countered this as some who tested positive for COVID-19 showed mild to no symptoms at all, so it is safer to wear masks.

Shan Soe-Lin and Robert Hecht, managing director and president of the Pharos Global Health Advisors Robert Hecht respectively, wrote for The Boston Globe that “Masks are the best way to enforce the “do not touch your face” mantra we are hearing about for COVID-19.”

“The coronavirus, like all respiratory viruses, needs to enter mucous membranes in the nose, throat, and eyes to cause infection. If you can successfully block access to these critical entry points, you will avoid infection by the coronavirus, flu, and any of several hundred other respiratory viruses,” they said in their article.