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Transparent face masks could aid communication, especially among people with hearing loss

Face masks can help block coronavirus transmission.

But they also can hinder clear communication, especially for the 17% of adults and 72% of seniors in the U.S. with some degree of hearing loss.

A new  study in the journal JAMA Network Open investigates one potential solution.

Opaque masks muffle speech and hide the mouth, which hampers the ability to share emotions like empathy. This barrier especially impedes health care workers with impaired hearing.

When patients and health care workers, some of whom were deaf or hard of hearing, watched a speaker wearing a transparent N95 mask, about 74-88% could identify the emotion expressed, compared to 20-24% when the speaker wore a standard mask.

The findings suggest see-through masks might help overcome communication barriers, but manufacturers must meet medical standards and solve problems like fogging, discomfort and sound muffling.

Nicholas Gerbis joined KJZZ’s Arizona Science Desk in 2016. A longtime science, health and technology journalist and editor, his extensive background in related nonprofit and science communications inform his reporting on Earth and space sciences, neuroscience and behavioral health, and bioscience/biotechnology.Apart from travel and three years in Delaware spent earning his master’s degree in physical geography (climatology), Gerbis has spent most of his life in Arizona. He also holds a master’s degree in journalism and mass communication from Arizona State University’s Cronkite School and a bachelor’s degree in geography (climatology/meteorology), also from ASU.Gerbis briefly “retired in reverse” and moved from Arizona to Wisconsin, where he taught science history and science-fiction film courses at University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. He is glad to be back in the Valley and enjoys contributing to KJZZ’s Untold Arizona series.During the COVID-19 pandemic, Gerbis focused almost solely on coronavirus-related stories and analysis. In addition to reporting on the course of the disease and related research, he delved into deeper questions, such as the impact of shutdowns on science and medicine, the roots of vaccine reluctance and the policies that exacerbated the virus’s impact, particularly on vulnerable populations.