With worldwide coronavirus anxieties on the rise, U.S. surgeon general Jerome M. Adams took to Twitter on Saturday morning to issue what might have seemed like an unexpected public service announcement.
“Seriously people—STOP BUYING MASKS!” he tweeted. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
With this declaration, Adams joined a growing contingency of health officials who have been imploring the public to stop buying masks unless they’re showing symptoms of COVID-19—fever, cough, shortness of breath—or caring for someone who’s ill. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), for one, “does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19.”
Dr Abrar Chughtai, an epidemiologist and the director of UNSW’s Master of Infectious Diseases Intelligence Program, told VICE via email that “the general public do not need to use masks unless they are taking care of sick people. Masks may not be effective for healthy people, and there is very little evidence on their efficacy.”
Virologist Ian Mackay, an associate professor at the University of Queensland’s school of medicine, meanwhile told The New Daily “there is no scientific evidence that they [face masks] protect the general public from infection”, and further noted that masks are “more likely to be used wrongly and increase the risk by giving a false sense of security.”
What the masks are useful for is blocking the majority of large respiratory droplets that are produced from other people’s sneezes and coughs and stopping them from entering your mouth and nose. For this reason, CDC recommends that health workers use N95 masks which are thicker, fit more tightly, and block out much smaller particles than surgical masks.
The reason face masks are not typically deemed effective for members of the public is because, in general, people are more likely to get infected by touching contaminated surfaces than by a droplet traveling through the air. For that reason, Dr Chugtai echoes the advice of other medical professionals by recommending that people exercise good hygiene and constantly wash their hands.
“Masks should be used by sick patients to prevent spread of infection… [but] we need to educate people to do hand hygiene, cough etiquette etc, and to contact a doctor if they have a travel history and symptoms,” he says. “Once community level outbreak starts, then people should avoid crowd gathering; do not get close to sick patients; and contact a doctor if they develop symptoms.
“Only sick people should use masks to prevent the spread.”
Yet panicked hordes of consumers continue to raid pharmacies, shopping centres, and online stores in the hope of insulating COVID-19—possibly to the detriment of those who are most vulnerable or otherwise working at the frontline of the epidemic. As panic buyers and hoarders clean out stores around the world, an increasingly heavy strain is placed on the global supply of face masks and the ability of health care workers and to access them.
“There are severe strains on protective equipment around the world,” Dr. Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the health emergency program at the World Health Organization, declared last week, as reported by The New York Times. “Our primary concern is to ensure that our front line health workers are protected and that they have the equipment they need to do their jobs.”
“There are limits to how a mask can protect you from being infected,” Dr Ryan added. “The most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face, and observe very precise hygiene.”
“Not having a mask does not necessarily put you at any increased risk of contracting this disease.”
So in short: unless you think you might already have the coronavirus or are working close to sick patients in the capacity of a medical professional, maybe leave the masks for those who really need them. It could end up being more effective for all of us in the long run.