The number of coronavirus cases around the globe is ticking up almost hourly and people are understandably concerned about catching it themselves.
News photos and footage of scores of people around the globe wearing face masks may lead you to believe this is the best way to protect yourself from getting infected with Covid-19. Think again. Here’s what doctors need you to know about what face masks can and cannot do and how to use them effectively.
A mask is not a respirator
The masks you see in the news are almost always dust masks or surgical masks, not respirators. There’s a big difference, although they can look similar at first glance.
“A face mask is a lose-fitting disposable device that creates a barrier between the mouth and nose and the external environment,” explains Meghan McGinty, PhD, affiliate assistant professor of environmental and occupational health sciences at the University of Washington School of Public Health. “They’re not intended to protect you against respiratory illnesses. They’re typically meant to prevent you from inhaling large particles like dust particles.”
Respirators, on the other hand, are meant to protect you from smaller particles like viruses. They’re worn by healthcare professionals in healthcare settings all the time. An N95 mask, which you’ve probably read about, blocks at least 95 per cent of very small particles, and that can include bacteria and viruses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
You can check out the CDC’s infographic comparing surgical masks and N95 respirators, which shows how they differ, how they should be used (and discarded), and what they look like side by side.
Healthy people don’t need face masks
“In general the advice is that nobody should be wearing a mask unless directed by an individual healthcare provider,” says Dr McGinty. “The masks are more effective when used by people who are actually sick than by the general population.”
There is an exception. WHO does recommend wearing them if you’re taking care of someone who is suspected of having the new coronavirus.
The CDC recommends that anyone who has confirmed or suspected Covid-19 wear a face mask until they are isolated or quarantined. Then they can take it off.