Coronavirus Impact: San Francisco nurse creates possible solution to face mask miscommunication issue

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Probably the last thing you want someone to do is lower their face mask if you can't understand them. Voices can be difficult to understand going through fabric.

A possible solution has been developed by a San Francisco nurse.

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Face masks have created challenges for many to communicate clearly, whether or not hearing impairment is an issue. Just ask Bennet Harvey, who was dealing with some workers on a home improvement project.

"They broke up some concrete I didn't want them to because I had missed or misunderstood something they said, and they misunderstood me," he said.

It's a growing problem that audiologists say is caused by the muffling of voices through fabric. Steve Eagon directs sales development at Eargo, a hearing aid company based in the South Bay.

"What happens is that our ability to even more finely distinguish the high-pitched parts of speech, so the consonants like s, th, f, sh... if we say the word ship, for example, that could be misconstrued a number of ways," he explained.

A possible solution is in development -- a medical-grade mask with a transparent panel that allows a speaker's mouth to be visible. People with hearing loss often rely on lip reading to clarify what is being said. The see-through mask also provides visual feedback about the speaker's personality or emotional support.

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"The patient is more compliant when they feel the caregiver is genuine and empathetic and cares about them," said San Francisco registered nurse Jeanne Hahne. "The lack of communication or miscommunication is one that can cause serious medical problems."

She developed the FaceView Mask. A research grant from the National Institutes of Health has looked into the benefits. With masks widely used by the public and by medical staff, she believes the see-through panel addresses both hearing difficulty and human connection.

"Obviously with COVID-19, people are sick and critically ill, and they need to have their family members be able to have those moments where they connect emotionally," she said.

The transparent masks have been tested by surgeons. Orders are pouring in as plans are underway to manufacture them domestically.

In the meantime, it's suggested for those unable to hear people in masks to let them know you can't understand them. And to consider taking along a notepad to write down critical details to prevent misunderstanding.

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