Why a mask won’t protect you from the Wuhan coronavirus

By | January 31, 2020

Canadian health officials have stressed that the risk of transmission of the Wuhan coronavirus is low, but in the wake of three confirmed cases people are searching for a way to protect themselves, and many have turned to surgical masks.

On Amazon and Alibaba, a global run for anti-virus masks had the websites run out of stock as of Wednesday. Across China, Hong Kong and Singapore, people lined up for hours at stores and pharmacies hoping to secure dwindling supplies. People from San Francisco to Orlando said they were unable to find surgical masks at their usual outlets.

While the rush is global, Chinese people living abroad have been buying masks to send back to family members or resell them online. The protective gear is even flying of the shelves in major Canadian cities, such as Montreal and Toronto, according to media reports. But can a protective mask really protect you from this new infectious disease? Here’s everything you need to know.

Tourists wear masks to prevent contracting coronavirus in Seoul, South Korea January 29, 2020. REUTERS/Heo Ran

First off, do masks work?

For most people, no.

“A mask that you buy in the pharmacy can never give total protection against a virus that is transmitted through the air,” said Eric Litvack, medical chief for preventive medicine and control in Montreal’s Public Health Department.

But they can help if they’re worn by people who are sick, because they act as a barrier to stop the tiny droplets that are expelled when they cough or sneeze, Litvack said.

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In China, where thousands have been infected and may not be aware of it, masks could reduce the spread of the virus, he said. But the masks don’t give a hermetic seal, so very small drops suspended in the air can still get through.

Physicians do not recommend that the general population wear a mask, said Charles Frenette, medical director of infection control at the McGill University Health Centre, because once it’s been used by a sick person it is contaminated and should be discarded immediately. People who are unaware of this may touch the mask with their hands or leave it lying around.

Also, people don’t tend to practice proper etiquette while wearing a mask. For example, someone may still touch their mouth, risking infection.

Early data on the new form of virus suggests masks won’t be especially effective

Dr. Sohail Ghandi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, said early data on the new form of virus suggests masks won’t be especially effective.

While masks may have helped ward off the spread of SARS during the deadly 2003 outbreak, preliminary research indicates the same won’t be true of the current virus, he said. “Handwashing is more effective than face masks with this particular virus, particularly if you’re not infected.”

People wait in line to purchase protective masks at a Watsons store in Hong Kong on Wednesday, Jan. 29, 2020. Paul Yeung/Bloomberg

Then why do medical workers wear masks in hospitals?

In that case, they work as part of an overall strategy to limit the spread of diseases.

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At the McGill University Health Centre, medical workers caring for people who have respiratory tract infractions like influenza or the rhinovirus employ “droplet precautions” like wearing a surgical mask, gloves, eye protection and a gown, Frenette said. For more virulent strains, like chickenpox, measles, tuberculosis, ebola and the new coronavirus, workers must wear the N95 mask, which provides more coverage and has a better filter.

Studies done during the SARS epidemic of 2003 found that for medical professionals, wearing any type of mask compared with none can reduce chances of getting sick by about 80 per cent, said Mark Loeb, an infectious disease specialist at McMaster University in Hamilton.

Presently, the World Health Organization and the Public Health Agency of Canada recommend those caring for a patient use a medical mask, while the United States is recommending the N95 mask.

What should Canadians do to protect themselves?

First off, don’t panic. There is little evidence of a chance of exposure in Canada. Anyone who is infected, and the people they have come into contact with, will be monitored and kept in isolation.

The best thing to do is to wash your hands frequently and practise proper respiratory hygiene, Litvack said. This means coughing or sneezing into your elbow, discarding tissues after blowing your nose and then washing your hands. And avoid touching your mouth or nose so as not to transmit pathogens to your hands.

Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa called for increased handwashing, but noted that the arrival of coronavirus is not the main reason behind the advice. She said washing hands with soap and water, plus limiting contact with one’s face, makes sense during the Canadian flu season currently in full swing.

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De Villa also urged one other measure known to limit the spread of all airborne diseases.

“We do encourage people that when they’re sick with a respiratory illness, best to stay home and limit transmission,” she said. “It also gives one a chance to recover.”

With files from The Canadian Press, The Montreal Gazette, Bloomberg

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Health – National Post