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DLSPH Researchers to Test COVID Masks in New Ways

January 26/2021

DLSPH Prof. James Scott is breaking new ground in determining the effectiveness of anti-COVID face masks, thanks to $1.2 million from the Ontario government for equipment that measures filtration much more accurately.

Professor James Scott

Scott, head of DLSPH’s Division of Occupational and Environmental Health, will perform the next-generation testing in the same Gage building lab where he and his team of researchers have been evaluating the COVID-blocking effectiveness of masks since the start of the pandemic. The team drives better mask design with high-quality, low-cost standard testing for the health care and innovation sectors. And now, they are among the first academics in the world to explore the flow of COVID-scale particles against masks in two directions – both to and from the person wearing the mask. Standard testing measures filtration in only one direction.

Calling the investment “money well spent,” Ontario Premier Doug Ford announced the funding to U of T online this morning, along with an equal sum to McMaster University for PPE testing. He was joined by the Hon. Victor Fedeli, Minister of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade; the Hon. Ross Romano, Minister of Colleges and Universities; MPP Donna Skelly; U of T President Meric Gertler, and McMaster President David Farrar.

“From the earliest days of the pandemic, Ontario’s innovation and manufacturing might was unleashed to develop and produce the PPE, the ventilators and the other essential equipment we would need to face the challenge of COVID-19,” said Fedeli.  “With this investment into research and testing at two of our leading universities, we are reinforcing our province’s reputation as the gold standard for medical equipment across Canada and around the world.”

Ontario government funding announcement, Jan 26.

More than a year into the pandemic, many questions about the effectiveness of face masks remain unanswered – particularly around the optimal design of non-medical masks to maximize effectiveness, and the impact of reuse of medical masks on their continued function.

Access to both reliable standard testing and  novel approaches will help guide public health policy to keep health workers and the public safer.

“The scientific literature has been silent on many basic questions about mask performance,” said Scott. “This generous support will allow us to provide access to standard testing as well as develop novel ways to measure mask performance. It could influence mask design, and how we reuse masks.”

Scott has been a world leader in mask testing since 2006, when he began researching the biophysical properties of aerosols in the wake of the SARS crisis. Over the years, his lab at the Dalla Lana School of Public Health built capacity to sample aerosols, test various masks, and even develop some of the equipment necessary to do so. When COVID emerged, he hit the ground running in March by testing thousands of masks for hospitals – both for efficacy and for reuse potential – and even home-sewn masks  developed by community innovators. The prohibitive cost of commercial testing meant that without Scott’s service, many masks would have gone to waste during the early months of the pandemic, when PPE was in critically short supply. And Scott kept subpar masks out of healthcare use.

Now, with the new infusion of cash, Scott will be able to more than double his testing capacity, and answer exciting new questions about mask efficacy.

Such developments are “a significant step in meeting future needs,” said Prof. Gertler. “As a result the province will be better equipped to respond immediate and effectively to public health emergencies in the years to come. And our manufacturers will be in a stronger position to compete and lead on the world stage, creating jobs and prosperity here at home.”

The funding comes from the Ontario Together Fund through the Ontario Ministry of Economic Development, Job Creation and Trade, in which the provincial government is making targeted investments that will increase the province’s stockpile of made-in-Ontario products and PPE. This new manufacturing and research capacity will help the province to combat the current COVID-19 outbreak and prepare for potential challenges in the future, while supporting local businesses during the safe and gradual reopening of the province.