Roger Mallett [Staff Author]
Community transmission of COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus, has officially begun in the U.S., with two cases in California and one in Oregon of unknown origin. The first COVID death was reported Saturday, Feb. 29, in Seattle. The natural human response to a strange, new disease making its way to a neighbourhood near you is to feel anxiety and want to DO SOMETHING. That’s why many people have been buying up and stockpiling masks. But even if you could buy any in the midst of global shortages, should you?
And if you already have masks, should you wear them when you’re out?
Even if there are COVID cases in your community?
Even if there are cases next door, the answer is no, you do NOT need to get or wear any face masks—surgical masks, “N95 masks,” respirator masks, or anything else—to protect yourself against the coronavirus. Not only do you not need them, you shouldn’t wear them, according to infection prevention specialist Eli Perencevich, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine.
“The average healthy person does not need to have a mask, and they shouldn’t be wearing masks,” Dr. Perencevich said. “There’s no evidence that wearing masks on healthy people will protect them. They wear them incorrectly, and they can increase the risk of infection because they’re touching their face more often.”
But even if you know what you’re doing and you tie your hands behind your back, you still don’t need to wear a mask.
Only Wear A Mask If You’re Sick
First of all, most people buying masks are not getting one that stops the virus from reaching their mouth or nose anyway. The coronavirus is transmitted through droplets, not through the air. That means you cannot randomly breathe it in, but it also means the standard surgical mask you see people wearing will not help. Those masks are designed to keep droplets in—not to keep them out—and are intended to keep the wearer from getting others sick.
“The one time you would want a mask is if you’re sick and you have to leave the house,” Dr. Perencevich said. “If you have the flu or think you have COVID, that’s when you’d put on a mask to protect others. In your house, if you feel like you’re sick, you should wear a mask to protect your family members.”
If you are caring for someone with COVID in your home, it is wise to wear a mask when in close proximity to that person, who should also wear a mask, Dr. Perencevich said. Consult a healthcare provider for the correct way to wear and dispose of the mask, or consult this excellent explainer from the World Health Organization. For those concerned about being able to get a mask if you or a household member becomes ill with COVID, the emergency department or clinic where you are diagnosed should provide them them to you. The sick individual should ask for one immediately upon arriving at the healthcare facility.
There has been some question about whether this coronavirus is “airborne” and what that means. The virus is not airborne using the scientific definition used for pathogens such as tuberculosis or measles. Droplets might become aerosolized for some viruses, but there is not yet evidence showing that this coronavirus can be breathed in when a nearby infected individual exhales. Most research into this question focuses on influenza, such as this 2018 study suggesting the flu virus can be aerosolized in exhalations without coughing or sneezing. This evidence is preliminary, and it remains an open scientific question whether (and which) droplet-based respiratory viruses are transmitted this way. So far, all documented transmission for COVID cases has involved droplets. ]
What Does Keep The Virus Out?
The type of face covering that reduces exposure to airborne particles—including protecting the wearer from viruses and bacteria—is called a respirator. The type of personal protection equipment (PPE) that healthcare workers wear when treating someone with a serious contagious disease is a medical respirator.
Disposable medical respirators can resemble standard surgical masks but must be thrown away after one use because they become contaminated with the particles they’re filtering out. Reusable respirators, which use replaceable filters, are the ones that make you look like a giant insect.