Covid-19 FAQ: Face masks – what you need to know


  • Wellness
  • Monday, 13 Apr 2020

Cloth masks do not perform as well as surgical masks when it comes to preventing exposure to infected droplets in the air. — YAP CHEE HONG/The Star

Should we all be wearing masks?

No. Overall, the systematic review conducted by University of East Anglia in the United Kingdom found that the evidence was too uncertain and the possible protective effects too small to recommend widespread use of face masks to protect against Covid-19.

The best way for the general population to protect yourself and others is to follow government guidelines for social distancing and washing hands regularly.

Masks are currently in very short supply and the people who are most at risk of catching the infection and possibly spreading it to others, are healthcare workers.

We are all in danger if doctors and nurses can’t wear masks because the general public bought up all available supplies.

What about vulnerable people?

The best way for vulnerable people to stay protected is to follow government guidelines on the movement control order.

However, there is enough evidence to endorse the use of face masks for short periods of time by vulnerable individuals when in transient higher risk situations, such as on crowded public transport or visiting busy shops.

Should I wear a mask for appointments at clinics, hospitals or dentists, or when visiting a pharmacy?

If these are not crowded environments, then there is little chance of protecting yourself by wearing a mask.

If you do have symptoms of respiratory illness, then wearing a mask could help protect others from your germs, especially if the place is crowded.

What about frontline staff and carers?

The people who most need to wear masks, to protect us all, are healthcare workers dealing with possibly infectious patients.

We are all in more danger from Covid-19 if healthcare workers cannot obtain the safety equipment they need.

This could happen if community demand for face masks becomes too high.

When should face masks be worn?

Wearing a face mask while out and about on busy public transport, in shops and other crowded places, could help protect people from respiratory infections like Covid-19.

The study conclusions are that people who wore masks, usually surgical grade, were less likely to get respiratory symptoms from casual exposure in the community.

Something like a sneeze or cough near you would become less likely to cause infection.

It’s only a small reduction in risk for healthy people, but might be important to vulnerable people, who might benefit more from this protection.

We also need to remind everyone that the reduction in risk from wearing a mask may be fairly small.

So people need to be vigilant about all their habits, and not rely solely on face masks.

What about at home?

Wearing masks at home seemed to reduce the odds of well housemates becoming ill.

The risk reduction was greatest, at 19%, if everyone in the home, whether ill or well, wore masks.

The protective effect is not large within a home setting because people have lots of repeated types of contact, so there are many ways for the germs to transmit.

Also, it’s hard to wear masks correctly for many days at home as they interfere with things like sleep, eating and brushing teeth.

It’s usually unrealistic to keep face masks on all the time.

They can be uncomfortable, hot, cause skin reactions or simply feel anti-social.

Masks also need to be disposed of correctly in order to avoid picking up an infection from the mask itself.

Most of the original controlled experiments reported that people who were assigned in the experiment to wear masks most of the time found this difficult.

This is why washing hands remains so important.

Washing hands well only requires 20 seconds of concentration occasionally throughout the day, compared to wearing masks correctly most of the day.

What’s the correct way to use a face mask?

It actually depends on the design of the mask and what kinds of activities you have been doing. Each mask comes with its own instructions.

A very general rule would be to assume that a mask is no longer protective after wearing it for three hours.

Wearers should wash their hands before they put on a mask, and more importantly, after they take it off and dispose of it.

What about other types of face masks, e.g. cloth masks and veils?

Face veils did not prevent the development of respiratory symptoms in a study conducted during the haj.

But surgical masks weren’t that protective at the haj either.

There is no evidence about whether other types of cloth face coverings have ever helped to prevent respiratory infections when worn by ordinary people doing ordinary activities.

In laboratory experiments, the cloth alternatives didn’t seem to perform as well as surgical masks in stopping transmission droplets.

Are disposable respirator masks much better than surgical masks?

In lab experiments or when health professionals wear them: Yes.

When people in households and the community wore inexpensive respirators, the respirators were only about as protective as an ordinary surgical mask.

Wearing a respirator correctly is harder than wearing a surgical mask correctly.

There’s probably no advantage to wearing a respirator if it hasn’t been fitted correctly to your individual face.

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