The novel coronavirus that has caused the Covid-19 pandemic transmits from person-to-person through respiratory droplets. The virus is also stable for several hours, even days, on surfaces. A new study from the National Institutes of Health, CDC (Center for Disease Control and Prevention), UCLA (University of California, Los Angles) and Princeton University scientists, published in The New England Journal of Medicine, found that the virus was detectable for up to 24 hours on cardboard and two to three days on plastic and stainless steel. The study also suggests that people are susceptible to being infected by the virus after touching contaminated objects.
The disposable nature of fibre-based medical products makes it easier to break the chain of infection. Jérémy Stenuit on Unsplash
Prevention is better as there is no cure
“A facemask might provide some protection, but it’s going to be very modest,” says Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University. The WHO (World Health Organization) emphasises that washing your hands thoroughly is crucial to arresting the spread of the virus. In a recent interview, Dr. David Heymann, CBE, Professor of Infectious Disease Epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, concurred. “A proven method of cleaning the hands is washing correctly with soap and water for 20 seconds or more - the physical action removes bacteria and viruses, if done properly,” he said.
As there is no vaccine or cure for the disease as yet, health professionals around the world are urging people to use facemasks, sanitary wipes and paper towels to ultimately break the chain of infections. These products are often made from paper or use wood fibre as a major component. They are disposable eliminating the risk of the virus being carried from user-to-user.
Scarce supplies have led to health professionals reusing disposable masks, increasing the risk of infection. Photo credit: Jumpstory
When demand outstrips supply
Individuals, medical professionals and governments are rushing to stockpile these medical supplies, creating a severe shortage around the world. This has been exacerbated by major producers like China, which produces half of all facemasks, Taiwan, South Korea and India prioritising the stockpiling of facemasks for their own citizens.
Despite experts such as Dr. Heymann insisting that “they should not be worn by people other than health workers to protect themselves”, people have continued to buy facemasks, creating an acute shortage for health professionals – especially of the more effective N-95 respirator.
In response, some governments have started placing restrictions on the use of facemasks among the general population, prioritising the masks for health professionals. The French government, for example, has requisitioned all facemask stocks and production for use by health professionals and the infected. The CDC in the US has recommended that the general population not buy facemasks but instead allow health professionals to have access to them.
To address the scarcity in supply, governments and private industry, including the paper industry, have come together to produce facemasks and other medical products on a war footing.
Governments across the world are ramping up production and accessing national reserves to ensure supplies don’t run out. Photo credit: National Emergency Supply Agency.
“They will not run out”
The South China Morning Post reports that in February this year, China increased its total daily capacity from 20 million units at the beginning of the month to over 110 million units by its end. Finland recently opened up its emergency reserve stockpiles, with Päivi Sillanaukee from the Ministry of Social Affairs and Health telling YLE News, “a million surgical gowns, masks and hundreds of thousands of respirators will be available. They will not run out.” In the US, the federal government announced an order for “hundreds of millions” of facemasks and companies have increased their production of facemasks.
The consumption of disposable paper towels is rising as well. The UK’s National Health Service and the WHO recommend using them when drying your hands after washing, as they are more effective at combatting the spread of the virus than reusable towels or ordinary hand dryers.
How much longer will the pandemic last and what will be its impact? Those are the questions facing medical professionals, global leaders and individuals at the moment. In the meantime, industries around the world are gearing up to do their bit to produce the necessary raw materials needed to manufacture essential medical equipment and flatten the curve.
Text: Sunanda Jayaseelan
Main image: Tonik on Unsplash