Medical face masks have become the enduring image of the Wuhan coronavirus outbreak and Chinese officials have urged citizens to don masks to curb the spread of the deadly disease, which has infected more than 60,000 people in China and killed more than 1400. But doctors say basic face masks aren’t as effective as most people think — and there are better ways to protect yourself from the virus.
Never the less – the coronavirus outbreak has fueled intense demand for face masks in China, where people often wait in line for several hours at pharmacies in hopes of buying one. As a response, producers and factories around the world are working double shifts to meet the demand – all while the primary manufacturers of medical supplies – the Chinese – have been temporarily stopping exports outside of the country so their own citizens can get get access to them.
As demand for masks skyrockets, and with no vaccine yet to prevent the spread of the coronavirus – scientists and medical experts are warning people that masks are not overly effective to prevent the spread of the virus from person to person.
The issue is that although scientists do not know exactly how the new coronavirus is transmitted – they do know it can enter the body through the mouth, nose and eyes. This means that medical masks that only cover the mouth and nose are only protecting 2 out of the 3 points of concern.
Surgical masks are typically more effective for people who are already sick because it prevents them from spreading an infection to others through coughing or sneezing. In a surgical situation, the mask is worn to prevent outgoing bacteria or potentially contagious droplets from leaving the surgeon’s mouth rather than preventing breathing in a virus.
By their very design, standard surgical masks are designed to block large particles and droplets, not not the small virus particles, and they’re typically loose-fitting with gaps around the nose, mouth, and chin. More robust respirator masks can be far more effective at protecting against viruses but only if they are individually fitted to form a tight seal.
“Small infectious droplets cannot be filtered by the surgical masks,” Hyo-Jick Choi, an assistant professor of chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, “At the same time, the respirators and the surgical masks do not have the function to kill the virus, so when virus-carrying droplets sit on the surface of the masks and the respirators, they can survive minimum a few hours to a week.”
That means wearing a mask with virus particles on it for too long could actually put you and others at risk rather than protecting you. If you are wearing a respirator, you will need to disinfect it after use – and disposable masks should be thrown out after single use and not reused.