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Can plastic face shields prevent the spread of coronavirus?

Experts are split on whether plastic face shields typically worn by health care professionals should be worn in everyday life.
/ Source: TODAY

As the coronavirus pandemic continues, many are wondering what they can do to protect themselves when out of the house. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) continue to emphasize the importance of staying home, social distancing, wearing cloth face coverings, frequently washing your hands and avoiding touching your face.

But some are wondering if people should take precautions a step further: Should we all be wearing face shields? Plastic face shields are most frequently worn by nurses or doctors who are very close to patients who may be exposed to droplets that contain the coronavirus. Yet, recently people have been experimenting with creating their own face shields for everyday use. We asked the experts: Is this really necessary?

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Should people be wearing plastic face masks?

Two infectious disease experts were divided on the efficacy of wearing plastic face shields in public.

According to Shan Soe-Lin, a lecturer in global affairs at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut and trained immunologist who spoke to TODAY earlier in April about the efficacy of face coverings, the plastic face shields are not necessary outside of a clinical setting, and do not need to be worn by the general public.

The face shields primarily worn by health care professionals are being researched to see if they are more or less effective than cloth options. PIERRE-PHILIPPE MARCOU / Getty Images

"The average person like you or me, social distancing and wearing a cloth mask correctly, is doing more than enough," Soe-Lin said, adding that a plastic shield would not filter air and would just block droplets from hitting your face, especially if not worn in conjunction with a cloth face covering.

However, Dr. Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security in Baltimore, Maryland who focuses on emerging infectious diseases and pandemic preparedness, said that the plastic masks can be helpful while experts work to determine the efficacy of cloth face coverings.

"A face shield can serve as a physical barrier to the particles you emanate when you breathe, and as a physical barrier to particles hitting you when someone coughs or sneezes," said Adalja. "This is something people have been trying to think about as an improvement to the cloth mask recommendation."

Are plastic face masks more effective than cloth face coverings?

Adalja said that experts have debated the usefulness of cloth masks and there is some research into just wearing a face shield instead.

"There's a lot of pushback against the idea of wearing cloth face masks, about how effective they are and what effects they may have, so people are trying to think about other alternatives," said Adalja. "We don't really know how effective (cloth masks) are at this point."

Twin plastic protective face shield preparing for use in operating room in hospital.
One expert warned that face shields might be uncomfortable and difficult to wear. Getty Images stock

While Soe-Lin warned about face shields not filtering air, Adalja said that it was more important to block prevent the spread of droplets.

Soe-Lin said that she believed face shields might make people more likely to touch their faces or otherwise be uncomfortable, therefore making the general public less likely to wear them.

"People aren’t wearing cloth masks because they think they’ll be uncomfortable," she said. "I don’t know why people think a face shield would be necessary ... For most people outside of a clinical setting the biggest risk is from touching your face and the face shields are easy to reach around so I don’t think they’re that much of a deterrent to touching your face."

Adalja said he believed that the shield would prevent someone from touching their face, but said that more research was still needed into the efficiency of the plastic shields as opposed to cloth masks.

Can I make a plastic face mask at home?

Since there are still shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) around the country, Soe-Lin warned against purchasing face shields that could otherwise go to health care professionals and other front-line employees.

Both Adalja and Soe-Lin said that plastic face shields could be made at home, but did not have recommendations on how to complete the process or what materials should be used.

A video showing how to make plastic face shields out of Polar Seltzer's two-liter bottles has been viewed nearly 30,000 times on YouTube.

Adalja said that shields could also be cleaned at home, though people would have to be careful not to transmit the virus from the shield to their hands. He advised using a disinfecting cleaning agent, washing and drying the mask, and then washing one's hands to ensure the virus is not further spread.