(This article is part of the California Today newsletter. Sign up here to get it delivered to your inbox.)
Today we are tackling our first question: Why have face shields not yet caught on as an alternative to masks in California?
Lori Holt, a neuropsychologist in Encino, posed this question. Dr. Holt conducts in-office assessments on patients using plexiglass barriers, air purifiers and disinfectants to protect herself and her patients from Covid-19. However, her efforts to conduct an accurate assessment are often stymied by patients who come in wearing masks.
“One of the thorniest issues we had to overcome involved the use of face coverings,” she wrote in an email.
Dr. Holt evaluates patients using a battery of tests to gauge things like a patient’s memory, attention and language. Face masks can sometimes muffle speech, posing communication challenges and potentially affecting the patient’s comprehension of the tests.
“If the patient doesn’t fully understand even a word or two of a paragraph or a word list that I’m asking them to remember for a verbal memory test, the entire test is ‘spoiled’ and unusable,” she said.
Dr. Holt has found that clear plastic face shields are a good alternative to masks for her patients, who can opt to wear their own masks or are given their own face shields that they can take home afterward.
“It is much easier to test the patients when they wear the face shield,” she said. “Their speech is much more intelligible than when they wear a mask. Also, we can see the patient’s face and thus do not lose critical data with respect to facial expression that can help us understand the patient’s emotional state of mind.”
Dr. Holt wondered about the popularity of face shields because, she said, despite the shield casting a minor glare, it is so comfortable that she sometimes forgets to take it off at the end of the day.
John Anderson, who lives in Penn Valley, Calif., asked a similar question about face shields. Mr. Anderson is hearing-impaired and prefers that others use face shields so that he can read lips. During a recent health checkup, his doctor wore a mask and his wife wore a face shield. He read his wife’s lips as she repeated the doctor’s words.
Last week, Gov. Gavin Newsom ordered all Californians to wear face coverings, like cloth masks, when out in public. The state’s Department of Public Health recommends wearing a plastic face shield with a cloth draped along the bottom only if the wearer has a medical condition that prevents them from wearing a cloth mask.
Face shields are also commonly used by front-line health workers, but more people are looking at face shields as an added layer of protection.
The Palo Alto Unified teachers’ union requested that the district supply teachers with face shields and other personal protective equipment when they return to school. And the state’s Department of Education recommends that everyone on school campuses wear masks or face shields with a drape across the bottom when schools reopen.
My colleague Knvul Sheikh wrote about the use of face shields, which can be easily wiped down and reused. Face shields also have the benefit of stopping people from touching their faces, and can be easier and more comfortable than masks.
However, experts say face shields have limits to the amount of protection they can offer. They seem to be most effective in protecting against cough droplets for people in close range of one another. And droplets can seep in through the back and sides of a face shield, which is why draping a piece of cloth along the bottom is recommended. But their efficacy has not yet been widely studied. For now, face masks are the better option for most people.
Regardless, we may be seeing a lot more of them in the coming weeks.
Because the face shields were cost prohibitive for some businesses, Long Beach began a free distribution program for face shields that it sourced from donations and from state and city resources. Last weekend, it distributed 4,800 shields in just a few hours.
Sandy Wedgeworth, the city’s public health emergency management director, estimates that the city still had around 25,000 face shields that it planned to give away to restaurants, bars and salons in future distribution events.
“We want them out there in the community. We want the folks that need them to have them,” she said. “They are no good to anyone sitting in boxes.”
Here’s what else to know today
We often link to sites that limit access for nonsubscribers. We appreciate your reading Times coverage, but we also encourage you to support local news if you can.
Jill Cowan grew up in Orange County, went to school at U.C. Berkeley and has reported all over the state, including the Bay Area, Bakersfield and Los Angeles — but she always wants to see more. Follow along here or on Twitter, @jillcowan.
California Today is edited by Julie Bloom, who grew up in Los Angeles and graduated from U.C. Berkeley.