Dr Marcia Anderson is a medical officer of health for the Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, executive director of Indigenous academic affairs, Ongomiizwin-Indigenous Institute of Health and Healing, my fellow co-chair of 13 Moons Harm Reduction and an overall trustworthy human. These are her words.
QUESTION: Are masks helpful for preventing COVID-19 in the community?
QUICK ANSWER: No
LONG ANSWER: This is a question I’m getting asked a lot and I’m sure a lot of us are seeing pics of people out wearing either medical or cloth masks. So again this morning I’ve reviewed the evidence and I’m going to try to summarize some key points here and provide some links at the end in case you want to do some more reading. The points below apply to people who have no symptoms and are in non-health care settings.
The WHO (World Health Organization) has stated (more than once as the situation evolves) that mass mask wearing in the public is NOT recommended and not helpful for a number of reasons, including:
- It gives people a FALSE SENSE OF SECURITY and then they don’t follow the actual recommended public health measures especially around social distancing (staying 2 m apart and limiting closer contact to less than 10 minutes).
- It makes it harder to protect the supply of medical masks for where they are actually needed and effective- like for health care workers providing health care. The global shortage is a real problem, folks.
Now, another reason they are ineffective is that people don’t actually use them correctly. What healthcare workers are told is that: don’t touch your mask or your face while wearing your mask (touching your face is a key way viruses like COVID-19 spreads and it is REALLY HARD not to touch your face when wearing a mask); masks are single use; masks have to be changed if they get damp or wet (which happens with breathing) because then they aren’t effective anymore; masks can’t be pulled down around your neck or away from your face to let some fresh air in; wash hands before and after putting them on/ off. How many folks in the community are actually following these rules for making mask use effective?
Also, even in homes where someone has been recommended to wear masks because someone has a virus like the flu, less than 50% of folks wear them as recommended…so might as well not.
Last point: WHAT ABOUT CLOTH MASKS? They can be very cute, but again…be cautious about the false sense of security. Yes, they used to be used in health care with specific grades of material, were considered single use and had to be properly cleaned and sanitized after each use. All the same rules about using medical masks (e.g. don’t touch the mask or your face) also apply to cloth masks. A 2015 study compared cloth masks to medical masks and… health care workers who wore cloth masks had higher rates of infection than those who wore medical masks and possibly even higher than those who wore no masks (but very few health care workers wore no masks so hard to say for sure). The increased risk of infection in those wearing cloth masks comes from:
- The physical properties of the cloth and it’s reuse
- The frequency and effectiveness (or ineffectiveness) of cleaning
- Increased moisture retention
- The virus may survive on the surface of the mask
- Self-contamination through repeated use and putting on/off with bare hands that may have the virus on them
So please, be cautious with the cloth masks. Beyond the false security they may actually be increasing the risk of infection as community spread starts. Show your love, care, and concern through social distancing, shopping and delivering groceries and other supplies for those more at risk, and connecting by social media/ phone/ text etc.
Links to references:
- World Health Organization – Rational Use of Personal Protective Equipment for COVID-19
- World Health Organization – Advice on the use of masks in the community, during home care and in health care setting
- World Health Organization – Community Transmission
- British Medical Journal – Infectious Diseases Research: A cluster randomised trial of cloth masks compared with medical masks in healthcare workers
- Shared Health Manitoba: COVID 19 Guidelines For Screening Health Care Workers
- Shared Health Manitoba – Routine Practices Protocol
- National Centre for Biotechnology Information – Face Mask Use and Control of Respiratory Virus Transmission in Households
I would like to say thank you to Marcia for agreeing to let me share this info for others to receive! It’s very important in this time of COVID-19 we rely on accurate and up to date information from reliable sources.