UPDATE: Wearing cloth (non-medical) face masks when you have to leave the house can help the spread of COVID-19, according to Canada's chief public health officer Theresa Tam. "It's an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you," she said in a press conference on April 6. "A non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or landing on surfaces." The Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) has said healthy people don't need to wear masks. However, the fear is that people are spreading the virus without knowing they have it.
Original story follows.
Earlier this year, when coronavirus was just beginning to emerge as a serious health threat, we started hearing a lot about face masks. Specifically, how they were selling out — and why they shouldn't be. We were told that healthy people didn't need to wear face masks. But, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now telling Americans to wear cloth face coverings when they are in public, and with other countries like Austria handing out disposable masks to grocery-store shoppers, should Canadians be rethinking whether or not we wear them, too? Here, we break it down.
What's The Official Word On Masks From The Public Health Agency Of Canada?
Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) guidelines advise that, outside of healthcare workers, only those who are sick or suspect they are sick should wear a mask to prevent them from infecting others. Canada's Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam reinforced that sentiment in a press conference on March 30, noting wearing masks can give people a “false sense of confidence.” However, on April 5, Tam said that the country's chief medical officers are working on "recommendations for the best uses of homemade face masks," reports the CBC.
Do Masks Help Protect Against Coronavirus?
The COVID-19 virus enters the body through the eyes, nose, and mouth. It transmits from person to person by touching these areas or by inhaling droplets directly from someone who is sneezing or coughing. Face masks are effective at capturing these droplets (hence why people wear them if they are sick), however, most surgical or disposable masks can’t protect against tiny airbone particles, according to the CDC.
According to the World Health Organization, masks are only effective when used in combination with frequent hand-washing (or using alcohol-based sanitizers if water is not available). Basically, try not to touch your face, and — unless you’re ill or caring for someone who’s infected — there’s no need to wear a mask.
However, Winnipeg doctor Dr. Lisa Bryski told the Canadian Press that it might be beneficial to make masks more commonplace in Canada. She explained that countries like Hong Kong and South Korea tackled the virus with a “multi-pronged approach” which included the widespread use of masks by the general population, and that this approach could work in here.
Meanwhile, University of Toronto infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV National News “the simple answer is if you are going to be anywhere near contact with someone else — especially not within your nuclear household — it’s a good idea to wear a mask.”
Why Has The CDC Changed Its Policy?
The main argument for this change is the high rates of people with coronavirus who are asymptomatic. They don't realize they have COVID-19, so they're more likely to take actions, such as leaving the house or attending gatherings, that could expose others. Since face masks do appear to keep sick people from passing their germs to others, recommending that everyone wears a face mask could conceivably help protect communities from these invisible carriers.
What Types Of Masks Are There?
There are two main types of masks. The first is the traditional surgical (or medical) mask which protects you from large droplets. The second is the N95 respirator mask that is designed with a thicker material and fits very close to your face. According to the PHAC, the N95 respirator blocks at least 95% of particles in the air. The CDC is not asking people to wear either types of these masks yet, saying those masks are "critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders."
If you do choose to wear a mask, make sure you're careful when putting it on and taking it off. “Keep the 'inside' inside and the 'outside' outside," says Colorado EMS medical director Dr. Shannon Sovndal. "It is absolutely imperative that the outside of the mask never touches your face."
Can I Make My Own Mask?
Access to face masks has been an issue since the early days of the pandemic, which means people are taking matters into their own hands. Health Canada has advised to use caution when making homemade masks, which are typically made out of cotton. These masks are not regulated and may not provide complete protection against virus-sized particles.
The president of the Ontario Medical Association Dr. Sohail Gandhi told Global News last month that homemade masks don’t work. “They don’t have the ability to filter the virus particles because the virus particles are very, very small, and most homemade fabrics simply don’t have that ability to filter them.”
COVID-19 has been declared a global pandemic. Go to the Public Health Agency of Canada website for the latest information on symptoms, prevention, and other resources.
*This story was originally published on April 2, 2020, additional reporting was added.