SINGAPORE: Singapore residents will be given "better" reusable face masks towards the end of the "circuit breaker" period, said Minister for Trade and Industry Chan Chun Sing on Wednesday (May 6).
This will be Singapore's third nationwide distribution of masks, and the cloth face coverings will have better bacterial filtration capabilities.
The Government gave four surgical face masks to each household in February, following this up with a distribution of reusable cloth masks last month.
Residents will be able to collect their new masks at community centres and residents' committee centres.
For the first time, people will also be able to collect their masks from vending machines that will operate even after work hours. Authorities will share more details at a later date, said Mr Chan.
Singapore started producing and stockpiling its own reusable cloth masks in February, Mr Chan told reporters, and with research and development, “new and better” materials have been found to improve on the initial cloth mask designs.
Responding to questions about the decision to distribute another round of reusable masks, Mr Chan said: “Actually all the while we have planned on the distribution of the reusable masks because we know that after we distribute the first one, beyond a certain time, we will need to refresh some of these.
“And as with all the reusable masks, even though it is reusable, it is not reusable for eternity. Beyond a certain point in time, people do change their masks.”
The new reusable masks have better bacterial filtration “without compromising on breathability”, said Professor Alfred Huan from the Agency for Science, Technology and Research (A*STAR).
“In the earlier version, the focus was more about protecting the community from each of the wearers, and depending on the kind of cloth or material, reusability would vary quite a bit. And it wasn’t really tested for any kind of bacterial filtration at that point.”
When asked if Singaporeans should stop using the reusable masks that were distributed last month, Prof Huan responded that they “would still be effective” in preventing the wearer's droplets from being transmitted outwards.
“The second-generation masks have added bacterial filtration. So obviously, if someone is concerned about walking into an area where there is potentially a lot of viral load, then he could be using that second mask, and it will be more effective in offering him some way of protection.
“I hesitate to give any clear examples of whether you should be still using the first-generation masks. But the principle by which it's stopping community spread, I think the first generation masks are useful. (They) can still be used as long as you know there are no tears and wear of the fabric.”
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Noting research by A*STAR that shows the reusable cloth masks protect people by preventing saliva and droplets from infecting others, Mr Chan said: “That strategy of using a cloth mask works if all of us mask up together.”
A*STAR is working with local textile and apparel manufacturer Ramatex to produce the new reusable face masks, they said in a joint media release on Wednesday, adding that production began in April.
The masks can be hand washed with mild detergent and fully air-dried. "This can be done up to 30 times while maintaining its integrity," they added. The breathability of the masks was also optimised to be comparable with medical masks.
In addition, the mask's duck beak design reduces the components needed, such as the metal nose bridge typically found in disposable masks, said the agency.
LOCAL PRODUCTION OF SURGICAL MASKS
The local production of surgical masks was also restarted in February, Mr Chan said, with the help of Innosparks at ST Engineering.
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, Singapore was only involved in the production of N95 masks.
For surgical masks, Singapore typically works with overseas partners to produce them. The country always had plans in place in the event that a supplier is unable to fulfil its contractual obligations, Mr Chan said.
When one foreign supplier was unable to fulfil its contractual obligations during the COVID-19 outbreak, the local production capabilities for surgical masks were restarted, he added.
With export restrictions constantly changing amid the coronavirus pandemic, diversifying and looking for new supply lines was a “daily exercise”.
“I must give credit to many of the workers working behind the scenes. It’s really their tenacity and creativity that allowed them to bring back the masks to Singapore,” said Mr Chan.
For example, some purchasers had to visit other countries and factories overseas, pay for the masks in cash, and guard the masks to make sure they are loaded on the trailers, planes and ships, he added.
The locally produced surgical masks will go towards Singapore’s healthcare system.
Surgical masks available to the public will continue to be sourced from multiple countries, said Mr Chan.
While the Trade and Industry Minister declined to share the exact production capacity for masks, the Government is confident in supplying the masks for local healthcare needs “for quite some time”.
Mr Gareth Tang, who heads Innosparks, said the team’s aim is to eventually supply masks for the whole healthcare system, and it is “largely on track” to do that.
“We have started mask fitting exercises at the hospitals at the frontline, and started forwarding our goods to the frontline as well.”
Thanking businesses and small and medium enterprises who came forward to offer help to start production lines in Singapore, Mr Chan said: “The common challenge for all of us in this pandemic is to make sure that we are able to secure the raw materials (for the masks).”