Coronavirus is now spreading in the Australian community. But does that mean you need to wear a face mask?
If you’re well, and are not caring for a person with COVID-19, the answer is probably no.
While protecting yourself from coronavirus is key to helping slow its spread, face masks are not recommended for healthy members of the general public.
They are, however, essential for people who are suspected or confirmed of having COVID-19, or looking after someone who is unwell.
Face masks help stop sick people spread virus
COVID-19 is an illness that is mostly spread via respiratory droplets — the little secretions we generate when we sneeze or cough.
It’s mostly passed on by touch — such as via contaminated surfaces — or when someone standing close to an infected person breathes in tiny droplets that have been coughed or sneezed into the air.
Surgical face masks, the ones you typically see in public, help to catch some of these splashes and droplets of fluid. This is why sick people are encouraged to wear them.
If you are in mandatory quarantine in Australia, you are required to wear a surgical face mask if:
- You need to leave your home for any reason and will be in public places
- You are visiting a medical facility
If you have symptoms of COVID-19, or are confirmed to have the disease, you will also need to wear a mask when other people are in the same room.
If you’re unable to wear a mask, the people who live with you should not stay in the same room as you, and they should wear a mask if they enter your room.
Healthy people not advised to wear masks
While masks can help to prevent transmission of disease from infected people to others, they are not recommended for healthy people for the prevention of infections like COVID-19.
That’s because there is limited evidence to support the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent community transmission.
Most often, the spread of respiratory viruses from person-to-person happens among close contacts.
While masks provide some protection at an individual level (if you’re in close contact with someone infected), they’re likely to make little difference if you’re just walking around in public.
Using masks incorrectly can put you at risk
Many Australians also don’t know how to use face masks properly, which means some people were potentially putting themselves at increased risk, said Holly Seale, and infection control expert.
“For many people, it’s not a social norm … so we’re kind of coming at it with no real knowledge,” said Dr Seale, a senior lecturer at the University of New South Wales.
While some people wear face masks in a bid to reduce the number of times they touch their nose and mouth (therefore reducing their risk of infection), Dr Seale said it can also have the opposite effect.
It was common to see people in Australia adjusting their masks and touching their face without washing their hands, as well as re-using them, she said.
“We know these masks can — like any other surface — have the pathogen on them,” Dr Seale said.
“If that mask is being put on and off and on and off, you are potentially putting yourself at risk or spreading it around, without even realising it.”
Face masks must be prioritised for health workers
Bruce Thompson, dean of health at Swinburne University, said the Federal Government was right to discourage healthy people from wearing face masks, since “panic buying” of masks was limiting supply to those that needed them most.
“We don’t have the supply chain for everyone to have them, and the hospitals need them,” he said.
Healthcare workers are required to wear face masks to protect themselves from infectious illnesses to stop the spread of the disease.
They have a higher potential to be frequently exposed to people who are suspected or confirmed of having COVID-19 through close contact during assessment and examination.
In Australia, doctors and nurses are under increasing pressure due shortages in face masks.
Doctors are appealing for more urgent government action to boost supplies of personal protective equipment, including masks, to deal with the coronavirus outbreak.
“Just like when we were discouraging people from rushing out and panic buying other products, these products need to be prioritised to those who really need them,” Dr Seale said.
But what if I make my own mask?
Home-made masks, such as bandanas or scarves, should very much be seen as a “last resort” when it comes to personal protective measures, Dr Seale said.
“We don’t have a good understanding around how cloth masks may protect … there is extremely limited data.”
While surgical masks and respirators are required to meet certain regulatory standards, home-made masks provide no guarantee.
The same goes for many low-quality, non-certified face masks available online.
“Anyone can manufacture a mask, and there is a lot of variety out there,” Dr Seale said.
“Whether or not what people [in the community] are wearing has actually been certified is a little concerning.”
Instead of finding ways to make or buy a face mask, Dr Seale said it was a better idea to focus on other more effective ways to protect yourself.