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This study evaluated the effect of wearing a surgical mask on gas exchange in healthy controls (a convenience sample of 15 house staff physicians without pulmonary disease) and in patients with severe COPD (n=15). At rest, there were no significant changes in end-tidal CO2 or SpO2 at 5 and 30 minutes. A 6-minute walk test was performed with masks, and hypoxemia was seen in some of the COPD patients (as expected due to their disease severity) without an increase in end-tidal CO2.
The findings in this study suggest that wearing a surgical mask does not significantly affect gas exchange physiology in either healthy people or in patients with severe COPD, although the interpretation of these results are limited based on the observational study design and inability to perform 6-minute walk without a mask for comparison. This finding is an important step towards reinforcing the safety of this measure, which is known to be essentially important for public health considerations during the COVID-19 pandemic.
– Amy S. Korwin, MD
This abstract is available on the publisher's site.
Current evidence, from observational studies to systematic reviews and epidemiologic modeling, supports the use of masks by the public, especially surgical masks, on mitigating COVID-19 transmission and deaths.1-5 However, public mask use has been heavily politicized with inconsistent recommendations by authorities leading to divided public opinion. Despite evidence to the contrary, an online UK/US survey found that only 29.7-37.8% of participants thought that wearing a surgical mask was "highly effective" in protecting them from acquiring COVID-19.6 Another reason commonly argued against mask use involves safety concerns, as mask discomfort has been attributed to rebreathing CO2 and hypoxemia, with some even considering that masks are lethal.7