7 April 2020
Should you wear a face mask? Here's what health experts are saying

Should you wear a face mask? Here's what health experts are saying

Михаил Терещенко / ТАСС

As the coronavirus continues to spread, an increasing number of people have taken to wearing medical or homemade masks in public, sometimes simply covering their mouth and nose with a scarf or collar. RTVI took a closer look at who needs to wear masks, how effectively they protect people from COVID-19, whether homemade protective equipment will help and what experts think on the issue.

There is currently no definitive answer on whether a mask will help prevent the spread of infection during a pandemic.

The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that masks should only be worn by infected people and those caring for the infected, that is, hospital workers and relatives. According to WHO experts, washing hands, social distancing and self-isolation are much more effective in combating the spread of COVID-19.

Those who choose to wear masks despite the WHO’s advice still need to adhere to a number of precautions, such as cleaning one’s hands before putting the mask on, avoiding touching the mask while using it, not re-using single-use masks, and replacing damp masks, among others. Violating those guidelines puts the wearer at a risk of infection, or, at the very least, negates the mask’s protective effect.

It is also important to remember that masks don’t protect the eyes. While mouths and noses have gotten the most attention as potential entry points for the virus, if a sick person coughs or talks next to you, virus particles may just as easily enter through your eyes.

The virus can live on different surfaces for up to 72 hours - neither a mask nor a respirator will help if you touch infected objects with your hands and then touch your nose or eyes.

Experts have noted that masks may also give people a false sense of security, leading to the violation of other guidelines, such as social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

However, according to biologist and science communicator Irina Yakutenko, scientific experiments on mask-wearing have not yet been conducted during periods of mass infection. In her opinion, the protective effect of masks may be higher in the presence of a highly infectious disease in a society that has not yet developed collective immunity.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), shared the WHO's position on masks until recently. However, on April 3, the CDC issued an updated set of guidelines recommending the use of cloth masks, including homemade ones, in “public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain”, such as grocery stores and pharmacies. The update came following growing concerns about asymptomatic transmission of the virus.

The CDC continues to advise against the purchase of surgical masks and respirators, which are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders”.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control advises against the use of cloth masks, saying that “only if surgical masks or respirators are not available, home-made cloth masks (e.g. scarves) are proposed as a last-resort interim solution”. The Centre states that cloth masks may even increase the risk of infection due to “moisture, liquid diffusion and retention of the virus”.

A comprehensive review of medical studies on masks from experts at the University of Minnesota came to the conclusion that cloth masks exhibit very low filter efficiency and may lead people to avoid social distancing, potentially worsening the spread of the disease.

If you still want to cover your face with a homemade device, Dr. Julie Fischer, associate research professor of microbiology and immunology at Georgetown University Medical Center, says that the effectiveness of improvised masks will depend on “the filtration capacity of the fabric and how closely the mask fits to the wearer’s face”. Fischer adds that heavier fabrics, such as those used for tea towels, may yield the best possible results.