Are mandatory face shields doing us more harm than good?

Published May 4, 2021, 12:17 AM

by James Deakin


James Deakin

 Today is May 4, 2021, or if you live somewhere in the NCR, day 413 of the world’s longest Covid lockdown. There’s some promising news coming in from the vaccine front, as well as many commendable efforts from both government and the private sector, but as of this writing, sadly, the Philippines continues to struggle to achieve the level of success that many of our Asian neighbors have had in terms containing the virus––which begs the question, what are we are doing or not doing differently to the others?

Now, I’m not going to get into the contact tracing issue, Ivermectin, mass rapid testing and vaccines; that has been politicized and weaponized to the point where even mentioning it on any public forum can be even more dangerous to your personal health and safety than licking door knobs of random hospitals.

I’m talking about the mandatory use of face shields in public buildings and spaces like malls, hotels or public transport etc. Stick with me for a bit. I’m not hating on face shields or denying their value; I am very aware of the science here––especially when worn together with masks––and that an extra layer of protection, no matter how small, is still an extra layer of protection. I get that. But that’s assuming that everyone is using them properly. Like how the trained medical staff do in hospitals. But what about when made mandatory for every Juan in the NCR? Like we do now.

The point I’m trying to make is that, while I’m no healthcare professional, what I observe is that we are the only country in the world where everyone is required to wear a face shield when going to public places, and yet despite that, we still have one of the highest number of active cases of Covid in our region. Yes I know there are many other factors involved, but you can’t ignore that single-use plastic elephant in the room. I’m not trying to blame the whole surge on it of course; I’m simply asking the question: in the context that we require them to be used, is it possible that we are doing more harm than good by making them mandatory considering that the reality is, most are only doing it solely for compliance.

And the problem with that is, when somebody does something solely out of compliance, it becomes solely about ticking boxes or performing theater. In other words, wear it in front of the security guard to be allowed entry into the establishment, and then tilt up and wear it like a K-pop inspired headband everywhere else. How many times have you seen this? Now, what happens if one of those people happen to be asymptomatic positive? They are now bringing that petri dish with them everywhere they go and resting it on restaurant tables, office desks, car dashboards or backseats, and then leaving it at the entrance of their homes, bedside table or throwing it away without throughly disinfecting it first, therefore creating yet another source of transmission.

You might say that you are religious with your sanitation process, but can you confidently say that about the other 100 plus million people?

“Good question” Doc Robbie Merriales replied. Now I reached out to Doc Robbie not only because he is a brilliant doctor, but also because he is an early Covid survivor after he was intubated and almost died from this dreaded virus last March 2020. And while he remains a staunch advocate of social distancing, masks and proper hygiene, he summed up his thoughts by saying “These shields are fomites and can carry the virus on its surface. I don’t think people religiously clean them. Same goes for the barriers in the jeepneys and buses”

And that’s my point. Used properly and voluntarily, I don’t think we even have a discussion here; it’s like saying helmets save lives. They do. But only if you wear them correctly. But if you don’t bother to do up the strap or if you wear it on your forehead or elbow like so many riders do, it cannot perform its intended function, and in the worst case, can even become a projectile that could harm someone else.

The face shield is no different—properly used, there’s an obvious increase in protection; incorrectly used, it becomes another source of transmission. And weighing those two out against each other in a real world test is the only way to establish an overall net gain or loss.

Dr. Tony Leachon also agrees. When asked the same question during my  weekly podcast, he replied with. “It (the policy) has to be revisited or reviewed. The DOH need to conduct random tests so they will know whether to revise the guidelines.”

Doctor Edsel Salvana, director, Institute of Molecular Biology and Technical Advisor to the IATF, also weighed in by saying “The combination of face shield and facemask can boost protection above 90 percent but the problem is compliance with faceshield is only about 30 percent.”

And therein lies the rub. Compliance. It’s as real as any other scientific factor.  So it needs to weighed in with equal value. We can’t just keep dismissing it as “Eh, tigas ng ulo kasi” because that’s like blaming traffic every time you’re late. It’s a fact of life here. And my concern is that we often dismiss that and tend to look at solutions in a very one dimensional angle (remember the motorcycle barriers?) when everything is interconnected. I mean, if you measure anything just on gains without factoring in the losses, we would all be earning our living at the slot machines.

Again, in theory, face shields as an additional source of protection was probably a good idea at the time. But you could also say the same thing about social media or inviting Kanye West to the Grammies. And we all saw how that worked out. But now that the evidence doesn’t support the initial optimism, the question should have evolved into: Once properly weighed out against all the pros and cons, not only for public health but also against the environmental damage due to the lack of a proper waste disposal program, as well as the compliance fatigue of having endless requirements to adhere to, I respectfully ask once again: are mandatory face shields doing more harm than good?

(James Deakin is a journalist who has spent the last 20 years covering the transport sector through his TV show ‘Drive’ on CNN Philippines, regular columns in newspapers, website and magazine, and in his radio show on KLite and the award-winning daily podcast Tito’clock. He has been been inducted into the Henry Ford Awards hall of fame for outstanding journalism. )

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