Some Canadians worried about the coronavirus after one confirmed and another presumptive case in Canada are wearing surgical masks to go abroad. But can these masks really protect against the virus?
According to doctors, the answer for the average person is largely not – but the context and the environment need to be taken into account.
WHEN SHOULD YOU USE A MASK?
"I think the important part here is trying to use them in the right context," Susy Hota told CTV News on Friday.
Surgical masks are a common – and necessary – sight in a hospital setting, she said, where patients, family members, doctors and nurses are in a closed environment with numerous individuals affected by various illnesses.
But this is very different from wearing a surgical mask while walking down the street.
"At the moment, there is absolutely no reason for people to be wearing masks in public," said Hota, adding that the only reason for this would be to follow a health professional's advice for a reason unrelated to the coronavirus.
At a news conference on Monday, updating the public about the new suspected coronavirus case in Ontario, Dr. David Williams, medical director for health, said his office "never recommended wearing masks in public" .
IS A TYPE OF MASK MORE USEFUL THAN ANOTHER?
The most common facial masks are loose surgical masks with elastic straps that surround the ears. Masks cover the mouth without creating a seal around it. One side is usually blue and should face outward. The upper part of the mask has a metal strip to mold to the bridge of the nose.
These masks do little for a healthy person, doctors say, but they can be useful for someone who is sick and trying not to spread the disease.
"If you are someone who is really sick, you may have a cold or the flu and want to protect others, this type of mask will protect the droplets from coming out in the air (when you cough or sneeze)", Gianni Del Negro, pharmacy manager London Drugs in Vancouver, told CTV Vancouver.
These surgical masks will not protect you from the new coronavirus, he said.
The N95 breathing mask, which is made of a thicker material and designed to fit closer to the face, may be more effective in blocking viruses in general, he added, but needs to be tested, used properly and replaced frequently – making it those inefficient for regular use by the public.
However, there is also no evidence that these masks would work against the new coronavirus.
Why are face masks ineffective?
Many people don't follow a proper health label while wearing a face mask, said Williams, which basically negates the benefits that a mask could have.
"I see people wearing the mask, and then they're dealing with things, putting their hands on the mask and touching their mouths," said Williams. "The mask may not be cleaned regularly, so you can re-circulate things."
He acknowledged that the masks "can comfort that person," but emphasized that there is no medical need for a healthy person to wear a surgical mask in public in Ontario.
Coronavirus is believed to spread in the same way as many respiratory diseases: through droplets when an infected individual sneezes or coughs. This means that a person is more likely to be infected if they have close and continuous contact with someone who is already infected, rather than passing a sick person on the street.
Dr Sohail Ghandi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, told Canadian Press that "hand washing is more effective than masks with this particular virus, especially if you are not infected".
Hota echoed these concerns, telling CTV News on Monday that because a virus can easily be spread by touching a surface that a sick person has coughed and then touching their own face, it is significantly more important to wash your hands frequently. and avoid touching the eyes and mouth.
According to Dr. Eileen de Villa, medical director of health for the city of Toronto, the best thing people can do if they are sick is simply to stay home and seek medical attention if their symptoms get worse.
If a sick person needs to travel on public transport, it is important to observe the sneeze and cough etiquette, coughing on one elbow and moving away from other passengers.
The authorities have repeatedly emphasized that the risk to Canadians is low.
Williams reiterated at Monday's press conference that the newest presumptive case in Canada is not surprising, as she is the wife of the man who was the first confirmed case in Canada, and the two recently returned to Toronto from Wuhan, the city Chinese at the heart of the outbreak. The biggest risk factor for this disease is having traveled to the affected areas in China.
Hota's advice to the public is to avoid the kind of panic that drives people to buy 40 surgical masks at the local pharmacy.
"Panic is never useful in a situation like this," she said. These are two cases. We are watching things closely and we are doing what we need to try to contain things here. And that is what our jobs are. "