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As experts argue about coronavirus face-coverings, here's what you should know

The great mask divide continues, and now a debate over the efficacy of neck gaiters and bandanas has been added to the mix. In case you missed it, a study about how to test masks meant to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was released late last week, leading many outlets to announce that neck gaiters are not just ineffective, but actually more dangerous than no face covering at all. But other scientists say you may not need to throw out your neck gaiter after all and that this is all just a case of misinterpretation.

The study in question was released last week in the journal Science Advances and it described an investigation into a low-cost way to test masks. Researchers at Duke University tested 14 different kinds of masks while one participant repeated the words, “Stay healthy, people,” for 40 seconds in a dark room. Researchers used a laser to illuminate the droplets and a cell phone camera was used to count and record the amount of droplets emitted into the air as the participant spoke. Then, researchers tested some of the 14 masks on four more participants in what amounted to a tiny but revelatory study.

Researchers noticed that some masks were seemingly more effective than others in preventing respiratory droplets from becoming airborne. For example, the camera recorded fewer droplets when the participant was wearing an N95 mask rather than a bandana. Researchers also observed that the neck gaiter they tested seemed to break up the respiratory droplets into particles small enough to become aerosol. Many non-scientists reading this research interpreted these findings as evidence that neck gaiters are dangerous, and headlines everywhere decried them.

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Here’s the thing: The test that the researchers at Duke were doing was not meant to test mask effectiveness in any other way than when a person is speaking with one one. The scientists appeared to be exploring whether an inexpensive method for testing masks that used readily available materials — namely a phone and a bright light — could measure respiratory droplet emission effectively. In kindergarten terms, the researchers were testing the test, not the masks themselves. The masks were just some of the equipment the scientists were using.

“The headline that neck gaiters can be worse is totally inaccurate,” Monica Gandhi, an infectious diseases specialist at the University of California told Science News. Gandhi added that spreading this kind of misinformation is dangerous. “It can turn people off of mask wearing, which we know can protect both the individual wearing the mask and those around them.”

Does that mean that the researchers unintended observations are totally irrelevant? Definitely not. It just adds to a pile of information we’re building about how to prevent this virus from spreading. What we do know is that the researchers’ observations on neck gaiters is anecdotal, so scientists do not consider it to be reliable enough data to draw a conclusion from. To be certain about any type of mask efficacy, “you’d need to test six to 10 different subjects, and six to 10 samples of the same kind of mask,” Charles Haas, an environmental engineer at Drexel University, told Science News. You would also need to take the materials of the masks and how they fit the wearer into consideration, Haas explained.

The Duke study is, in no way, erroneous. It was a study meant to explore new ways of testing masks, and it did that in an innovative way. It’s just that the conclusions that some people drew from the findings actually didn’t have much to do with the study itself. Or as Haas told Science News, “It’s an interesting technique that could be useful. But the results of this study have been misinterpreted beyond what the authors intended.”