As the coronavirus epidemic continues to spread farther across the world, claiming over 200 lives in China alone, the shortage of face masks is growing severely. Panicky people queue in front of pharmacies and shops, waiting for them to open to buy masks and sanitary wipes. Online stocks are depleted, and this skyrocketing demand is pushing manufacturers to open new factories just to keep up. So rises the question: Should you be running out to buy a mask?
There has been contradictory advice across the world about the necessity of wearing a face mask. Countries like Malaysia and Thailand are asking citizens to keep masks and hand sanitizers at the ready, while newspapers in Singapore are plastered with headlines like “Do not wear a mask if you are well,” and Australian health experts are reiterating calls that there is no need for the general public to wear face masks. One thing to point out is that the case in Asia is also slightly different, as many people sport masks year-round as a common practice to counter urban pollution.
But are these masks actually as effective as they seem to be? Hate to break it to you, but those surgical face masks do not offer you proper protection from airborne or respirable contaminants. (So that's a no for bandanas and scarfs, too.)
Usually worn by doctors, nurses and dentists, these masks are used to protect the patient, and stop germs from the bodily fluids coming from the wearer's mouth or nose reaching anyone else. The common and flimsy surgical mask doesn't offer adequate protection against COVID-19 or viruses in general. The coronavirus is quite small in size, about three microns, which is small enough to simply pass through the material of the mask.
You might argue that there is a distinction between the surgical mask and the heavy-duty N95 respirators. Yes, the respirator in the N95s keeps air particles away from the mask wearer and is geared toward protecting the wearer, but even these do not provide complete protection. They offer considerably better protection when compared to the common mask, but they are also uncomfortable and can make breathing more difficult. Health authorities say those who wear the N95 respirator masks should be wearing protective goggles as well anyway.
Official guidance from the World Health Organization and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention also makes no mention of wearing a face mask as a preventative measure against the virus.
However, if you are in close proximity to the infected person – say within 180 centimeters or 6 feet – then it is important to wear a face mask.
Another instance where such masks are helpful is when the infected or sick person wears them because it drastically reduces contamination rates.
One point that people tend to overlook is not touching the mask, especially around the mouth area, as hand contact can transmit viruses to the mask, increasing risk of infection. Officials advise you to only touch it when it is time to remove it, and under no circumstances, try to reuse it. Once you are done, into the bin it must go.
If masks aren’t that great then, what is one supposed to do to protect themselves?
Health officials say the only thing you need to do is practice proper hygiene. For example, Turkish officials recommend washing your hands often and at least for 20 seconds, with plenty of soap and water – especially after traveling via public transport. If no soap is around, doctors say an alcohol-based disinfectant will also do the job. They also advise refraining from touching your eyes, mouth or nose with your unwashed hands. People should also cough and sneeze into tissues or into the crook of their elbows to avoid spreading germs. Handles of doors, desks and toys as well as the surfaces where you eat are places that should be wiped down regularly.
People infected with COVID-19 can be asymptomatic or have very mild symptoms the first 14 days but still be contagious. The illness presents itself with symptoms such as fever, cough, shortness of breath, diarrhea, nausea and vomiting.