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Coronavirus outbreak: Why not everyone needs to wear a mask

People should neither buy face masks because the novel coronavirus is "in the air", nor should those who may already have masks at home, make an extra effort to wear them. Here's why.

Written by Abantika Ghosh | New Delhi | Updated: March 3, 2020 8:27:44 am
Coronavirus outbreak: Why not everyone needs to wear a mask People should neither buy face masks because the novel coronavirus is “in the air”, nor should those who may already have masks at home, make an extra effort to wear them. (Photo: AP)

At his special briefing on coronavirus on Monday (March 2), Health Minister Harsh Vardhan said that as a doctor, he did not think there was any need to wear masks in order to ward off infection; observing basic cough etiquette and basic hygiene was sufficient.

Dr Harsh Vardhan echoed the advice of the United States Surgeon General Jerome M Adams, the top federal spokesperson on matters of public health, who expressed his frustration on Twitter on Saturday: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Dr Adams’s tweet came in the context of panicked Americans rushing to buy masks online, including the so-called N95 masks, leading to an increase in prices and, according to media reports, some counterfeit products appearing in the market.

Until Monday, two Americans had died after contracting the dreaded virus on US soil.

Masks and coronavirus: not necessarily effective, not meant for everyone

The World Health Organisation recommends that health workers wear surgical masks over their mouths and noses.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) too, says that masks that are technically known as N95s — which are thicker, fit more tightly around the mouth and nose, are able to block out smaller particles much more effectively than ordinary surgical masks — should be worn.

This advice, however, is for heath workers, and for those who have a cough and/or cold — medical specialists have said that for healthy members of the public, they are generally not effective.

People should neither buy face masks because the novel coronavirus is “in the air”, nor should those who may already have masks at home, make an extra effort to wear them.

This advice does not change even if there are COVID-19 cases in a particular community.

Coronavirus outbreak: Why not everyone needs to wear a mask The World Health Organisation recommends that health workers wear surgical masks over their mouths and noses. (File Photo)

The CDC says that it “does not recommend that people who are well wear a face mask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19”.

Face masks, it says “should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others”, and that “the use of face masks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)”.

A report in Forbes quoted infection prevention specialist Dr Eli Perencevich of the University of Iowa as saying, “The average healthy person does not need to have a mask, and they shouldn’t be wearing masks. 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.”

It is important to recognise that the coronavirus is transmitted through droplets (like when you sneeze or cough), and not through the air, so that you can just breathe it in.

And since surgical masks are designed to keep droplets in (rather than keep them out), they work when used by a wearer who is likely to spray around droplets while sneezing or coughing.

In fact, you are probably more likely to get infected by touching a contaminated surface than from a droplet travelling through the air.

Don’t miss from Explained | Is coronavirus a pandemic yet?

“The one time you would want a mask is if you’re sick and you have to leave the house,” Dr Perencevich said in the Forbes article.

“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.”

The WHO and health officials around the world have been asking the public to stop buying masks if they are healthy or not caring for someone who is ill. This is critical to prevent a shortage for the people who really need them — medical professionals who are in direct contact with infected patients, and must change their masks frequently.

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“There are severe strains on protective equipment around the world,” Dr Michael J Ryan, a senior WHO official, said during a coronavirus related briefing last week. “Our primary concern is to ensure that our front line health workers are protected and that they have the equipment they need to do their jobs.”

Dr Ryan underlined that masks primarily prevent a person from giving the disease to someone else, The New York Times reported. And that “not having a mask does not necessarily put you at any increased risk of contracting this disease”.

Coronavirus outbreak: Why not everyone needs to wear a mask A worker disinfects subway trains against coronavirus in Tehran, Iran. (AP Photo: Ebrahim Noroozi)

More sensible and effective: washing hands, basic hygiene

In the circumstances, “the most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face and observe very precise hygiene”, Dr Ryan said.

The CDC advises that everyone should wash their hands often with soap and (preferably warm) water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom, before eating, and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

If soap and water are not readily available, an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol should be used, the CDC advisory says.

Also read | How coronavirus has caused air pollution to drop in China

The CDC (as well as the WHO) recommends “everyday preventive actions” to help prevent the spread of all respiratory diseases, not just the novel coronavirus:

* Avoid close contact with people who are sick.

* Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.

* Stay home when you are sick.
* Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.

* Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

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