WVU researchers create simulation to show importance of wearing masks


MORGANTOWN, W.Va. – A team of WVU researchers created a simulation of COVID-19 droplets spraying between two mannequin heads to show the importance of wearing masks and social distancing.

Using blue dye to represent the COVID droplets, the Center for Inhalation Toxicology produced coughs to see where they would land with or without masks. The simulation, which can be seen in a video they created, demonstrates that masks catch a lot of the blue dye and the bits it doesn’t do not enter the other mannequin’s nose and mouth because of its mask.

Tim Nurkiewicz, director of the Center of Inhalation and Toxicology said it was a lot of work finding the right equipment to create the simulation, but it was worth it because they accomplished their goal.

“The first goal was to educate the returning students by creating an info video, displaying the usefulness of maks and containing and reducing the risk of COVID spread when everyone comes back to campus this fall,” Nurkiewicz said. “During the course of that, we realized that part of a land grant university, our greater mission is to help the people of the state of West Virginia and we can educate them just as well with the same video and disseminating it statewide.”

Karen Woodfork, a WVU teaching associate professor in the Department of Physiology and Pharmacology, also helped with the simulation. She said she was brought on as a medical educator and because she creates a lot of educational videos for medical students.

“I think it’s really good to be able to see a physical, visceral portrayal of droplets being released from a coughing head and landing on another head,” Woodfork said.

Researchers from the WVU Center for Inhalation Toxicology used two mannequins to simulate the spread of COVID-19. (WVU Photo)

When a droplet leaves an individual’s mouth or nose, Nurkiewicz said, larger droplets dissipate quickly, in a matter of seconds and only travel one or two feet. As the droplets get smaller, he said, they linger longer and can go as far as six feet, sometimes even ten. The time smaller droplets spend in the air can vary from 30-40 seconds. As COVID-19 particles get even smaller and they’re no longer contained in a droplet, then it can behave more like an air pollution particle.

“And they can circulate around and they can linger in the air for a considerable amount of time in the order of minutes to hours,” Nurkiewicz said. “In terms of how long does COVID last on a solid surface? Studies vary because it depends on the surface and the environmental conditions. We have seen in literature as long as 4-5 hours the COVID can survive on an external service. Hence the importance of good hygiene, wiping things down, washing your hands.”

Both researchers said they hope the simulation can serve as a lesson to all about the importance of wearing masks, social distancing and following safety precautions.

“We encourage everyone to wear masks and this is not because anything is 100 percent effective,” Nurkiewicz said. “It’s because it begins from something is better than nothing in preventing the spread of COVID. And more importantly, wearing a mask is part of a series of behavior changes that everyone can do that causes no harm, that will prevent the spread of COVID. That series is a mask, proper hygiene, washing your hands, keeping the surfaces around you clean and practicing proper social distancing.”

Woodfork went a little further, saying that while wearing masks is an important step in preventive measures, it doesn’t really count if they aren’t worn properly.

“Masks are most effective when people wear them correctly,” Woodfork said. “And so people who wear their masks hanging down below their nose, they’re still sneezing stuff out of their nose, they’re still inhaling things into their nose, so although it’s easier to breathe with the mask hanging below your nose like this it doesn’t really help you or anyone else.”

This is not the only video that WVU Health Sciences, which the Center for Inhalation Toxicology is a part of, has produced. They recently made a Facebook video debunking myths about wearing masks.

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