Update: the CDC’s guidance on cloth face coverings has evolved greatly since March 2020. It is recommended you wear a cloth face covering when in public or around individuals who are not part of your immediate bubble.
Following increasing reports of cases of the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) in the United States, the surgeon general took to Twitter on Saturday to warn panic-driven citizens to quit buying up medical-grade surgical masks (sometimes called “courtesy masks”) — because a lack of supply of these materials would increase the risk for health care providers treating patients and their communities.
Though wearing surgical masks of some kind has been recommended among various groups of people dating back to the 1918 influenza pandemic — and there are studies showing that the masks can be effective in certain scenarios to protect against the flu — the prevailing narrative from healthcare officials in early 2020, particularly when it comes to coronavirus, is that the vast majority of the public doesn’t need these medical-grade masks (a standard cloth face covering will do) and shouldn’t be buying up masks that could otherwise be available for the medical community.
In a press briefing late last week, Dr. Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) health emergency program also noted that masks are most useful and most needed in medical settings — as these providers have the most direct contact with infected patients. “There are severe strains on protective equipment around the world. 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,” Dr. Ryan said.
When is it appropriate to use a face mask?
When it comes to medical-grade face masks there are two different models that people are typically referring to: the N95 Respirator and your standard surgical mask. For civilians, it is recommended that you use cloth face coverings (DIY or purchased) with an adequate number of layers.
For the former, since they require a professional fit test and needs to be worn tightly to a person’s face, they are a bit complicated for every day use and, as Adams said in an interview with Fox & Friends on Monday, carry the risk of being worn incorrectly and having the wearer fidget, touch their faces and otherwise mess with the integrity of the mask. The more commonly seen surgical mask is a loose-fitting mask designed mostly as a barrier between respiratory emissions (all the gross fluids that can get people sick) and is less likely to be considered useful respiratory protection for a healthy person wearing it.
In an email to SheKnows, a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) said that the org is “following the CDC’s lead on this topic.”
“There are limits to how a mask can protect you from being infected,” Dr. Ryan added during the press briefing. “The most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face and observe very precise hygiene.”
What can I do to protect myself and my family from getting sick?
Advice from the CDC and WHO remains consistent with Dr. Ryan’s assessment and with their guidelines for preventing respiratory illness:
- Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
- Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
- Stay home when you are sick.
- Wear a cloth face covering in public.
- Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
- Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.
- Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.
- If soap and water are not readily available, use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol. Always wash hands with soap and water if hands are visibly dirty.