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COVID-19 Healthcare Challenge - should I use a face mask?

11th May 2020 by Tea Meneghetti

medDigital's series of informative blog posts addressing issues surrounding the COVID-19 healthcare challenge starts with an exploration of the public's use of face masks during the pandemic.

The use of face masks has been a topic of much discussion in the media over the past few weeks. Although it is evident that frontline healthcare workers must wear protective equipment, there seems to be less clarity around the need for the public to wear these.

UK leaders' advice

In late April, the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, called for people to wear face masks when travelling in the city1, whilst the Scottish Government has recommended2 that people could use face coverings (not masks), for example fabric like a scarf, to cover their nose and mouth in certain situations where social distancing is difficult, such as on public transport or in food shops.

It did also highlight though, that there is limited evidence for whether face coverings can stop the virus spreading and that they shouldn't replace hand washing and social distancing.

Information from the WHO

Government advice changes from country to country, but they all share some universal guidelines. In the UK, the public hasn’t been specifically advised to wear face masks 3 by the government, but the World Health Organisation has shared some information which is applicable to all of us. 4

Their recommendation is that, unless you’re caring for someone with a suspected or confirmed infection, you shouldn’t need to wear a face mask if you’re healthy.

However, if you’re coughing or sneezing, or have mild or severe symptoms, wearing a face masks is hugely beneficial to protect others around you and prevent the virus from spreading further.

Consensus

If you deem it necessary for you to wear a face mask, make sure that:

  • Your hands are clean before you put it on;
  • The mask covers your mouth and nose, and there’s no gaps between your face and the mask;
  • You’re not touching your face, or the mask, while you’re wearing it;
  • As soon as you remove the mask, you replace it if it gets damp, or discard it entirely if it’s a single use mask. 

If you’re aware that your local area has been suffering from a shortage, the American centre for disease control (CDC) has published some guidance around optimizing the supply of face masks 3, should it be difficult to source surgical face masks that comply with current regulations.

Evidence of effectiveness?

A study was recently published on the scientific journal Nature4, testing the effectiveness of face masks to prevent COVID-like viruses from spreading. Patients were asked to wear a face mask on their own, and researchers measured whether these were enough to contain droplets from spreading. Allowing patients to position their own masks, without help from the scientific team, meant that the study could account for real-life errors!

The results showed that face masks were helpful in limiting transmission of the virus from the patients to their surroundings. However, the authors highlighted the importance of social distancing to truly minimise risk of transmission. Increasing the distance between people has been again emphasised as the safest way to reduce risk of infection.

Concluding thoughts

In conclusion, you should only wear a mask if you’re near someone who’s unwell, or if you’ve been infected yourself.

The truly important thing to remember is to keep up with proper hygiene practices. Washing your hands frequently with soap is the best way to ensure you’re not spreading the virus, but it’s also important to remember to avoid touching your face, don’t leave your home unless necessary,andmaintain adequate social distancing (2m or 6ft) from other people when you do go out.

Post publication update: 3 hours after the publication of this post, the UK government's official guidance has been updated to advise wearing of a homemade face covering in all enclosed publics places, and posted instructions on how to create one from spare cloth you may have at have.

The UK govermnent's official coronavirus guidance website is available here.

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