Texas Tech students discuss cotton nonmedical masks vs. COVID-19

• By Seshadri Ramkumar •

Courtesy University of Michigan

Face masks are indeed becoming a part of gift baskets this holiday season. With wintry weather on the horizon, COVID-19 cases are expected to rise, as is evident in the recent surge in Europe and United States. Given these circumstances, knowledge dissemination on biomedical and nonmedical countermeasures are the need of the hour.

I have been handling graduate level courses in spring and the current fall semester to discuss state-of-the-art in personnel protection against infectious diseases and toxic chemicals. A highlight of the current class is the engaged discussions on the usefulness of personal protection equipment and particularly cotton as a countermeasure material.

James Ayodeji, a doctoral student from Nigeria, presented results from a recent work that appeared in Virology Journal. The work focused on the effect of temperature on the stability of SARS-CoV-2 on common materials.

Results from this study and a few others showed that the virus persists for a shorter time on cotton than other materials. Interestingly, at higher temperature of 40 degrees Celsius (104 degrees Fahrenheit), no virus was recoverable from cotton within 24 hours. Even at a lower temperature of 20 C (68 F), the amount of virus isolated from contaminated cotton cloth was far less than from other materials investigated.

Face masks work as a barrier medium, and the class recognized this aspect based on the data available. Face masks have played a major role in curtailing the spread of the virus, according to Tian Shuangmei, a graduate student from Heze city, China.

Using reports from Chinese outlets, Shuangmei made a presentation about how the virus affected Wuhan and other places in China.

“China, being densely populated, strictly enforcing social distancing may be difficult. Strict rules regarding masks has helped the country to get control on the virus,” Shuangmei said.

Jonayo Farquharson from British Virgin Islands handled information about how China successfully kept the situation under control. An important take away has been that managing strict countermeasures in China has been less challenging compared to western countries due to the centralized epidemic response system, again emphasizing the need for PPEs.

Tracy Musgrove, a former science teacher for 23 years and a graduate student who has lost close relatives to COVID-19, emphasized the importance of masks in controlling the spread.

Over the course of this semester, students engaged actively in discussions on the COVID-19 situation by looking at the cases, deaths and recovery, all the while focusing on countermeasures. Haripriya Ramesh, originally from India, presented information on the structure and shape of face masks, which affect their utility and filtration.

Arkansas Extension Homemakers Council organizations have a long history of organizing and taking action, especially during times of crisis. They’ve made 10,000 masks and counting — photo courtesy University of Arkansas

Jeremiah Leach, a U.S. veteran who has served in South Korea, Iraq and Afghanistan, and a graduate student, said while nonmedical countermeasures like masks and social distancing may not alone be able to end the pandemic, they are necessary to slow down the progression.

“Since being a part of the “PPE and Infectious Diseases like COVID-19” seminar, I have gained a plethora of new knowledge about the virus and its countermeasures such as masks, but ultimately masks should possess proper fit, formability and filtration,” Terrell Hilliard said.

In my 22 years of teaching at Texas Tech University, while it is clear that I have not witnessed a situation like the current one, a great lesson learned has been that courses should focus on the needs of the society and should be flexible to tackle sudden challenges. It is such a relish to observe how the students participated in discussions about a stressful situation — a way of knowledge sharing and developing innovative ideas.

Results from some latest studies are shining due spotlight on the advantages of cotton as a viral barrier material, but further studies are needed to understand the reasons behind those outcomes.

Dr. Seshadri Ramkumar, is president of the Texas Tech University Faculty Senate and professor, Nonwovens & Advanced Materials Laboratory. He may be reached at s.ramkumar@ttu.edu.

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