A traveler wears a mask while walking through John F Kennedy International Airport amid coronavirus fears in New York on March 11. — Reuters

Coronavirus: Who really needs to wear a face mask?

Many across Asia wear face masks for protection against Covid-19; in Europe and the US, they are less commonly worn.
Published March 26, 2020

LONDON: Many people across Asia wear face masks to try and protect themselves against Covid-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus. In Europe and the United States, masks are less commonly worn, but many people are asking: Should they wear them during the pandemic?

The World Health Organisation’s advice is that if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if:

  • You are caring for someone with suspected or confirmed Covid-19 infection.

  • You are coughing or sneezing yourself, or suspect you might have Covid-19.

Masks work by capturing droplets that are dispersed in coughs, sneezes and breath — these are the main transmission route of the new coronavirus.

There are two main types of mask: surgical masks, which are strips of fabric worn across the nose and mouth and closer-fitting ones sometimes called respirators.

  • Close-fitting masks — such as N95 ones — can offer good, but not total protection against infectious droplets, while the next rank up — the N99-rated masks — can give better protection, but some find them difficult to breathe through.

  • The “N” rating relates to the percentage of particles of at least 0.3 microns in diametre that the mask is designed to block: N95 masks stop 95pc and N99 masks stop 99pc.

  • Some masks have a valve in the front to help prevent moisture in exhaled breath condensing on the inside, making the mask wet and more liable to virus penetration.

  • Masks are only effective if you combine wearing them with frequent handwashing and ensure you don’t touch your face.

  • Anyone using a mask should make sure their hands are thoroughly cleaned with soap and water or an alcohol-based hand sanitiser before putting it on.

  • The mask should cover your mouth and nose, and there should be no gaps between your face and the mask.

  • As much as possible, avoid touching the mask.

  • When the mask becomes damp, replace it with a new one. Do not re-use single-use masks.

“Wearing a mask can also reduce the propensity for people to touch their faces, which happens many more times a day than we all realise and is a major source of infection without proper hand hygiene,” said Stephen Griffin, an associate professor at Leeds University’s Institute of Medical Research.

Published in Dawn, March 26th, 2020