If you go outside, people wearing masks or scarves fashioned as masks has become a common sight.
But do members of the public need to wear them?
As of this afternoon, there are more than 850,000 confirmed COVID-19 cases worldwide according to Johns Hopkins’ Coronavirus Resource Centre, with 8,180 in Canada. As the pandemic continues, frontline medical staff are in desperate need for N95 masks and respirators.
On Monday, the World Health Organization (WHO) and Health Canada officials said people don’t need to wear masks unless they’re sick with COVID-19 or are caring for someone who is sick.
“Putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial,” Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, said during a March 30 press conference. “The scientific evidence is that if you are sick then put on a mask to prevent those droplets from flying in any space as you are going to a clinic or move yourself around the community for essential needs.”
She explained that someone caring for another with COVID-19 should also be in self-isolation and wear a mask if they step out for essential needs.
Compounding matters is Canada’s shortage of personal protective equipment. Frontline medical staff are in need of more masks and ventilators due to backed up supply chains. On Tuesday, prime minister Justin Trudeau said the federal government is working with the private sector to produce more PPE gear and is spending $2 billion to procure more equipment.
“We want to protect our frontline health workers and prioritizing supply in that setting is critically important,” says Tam, adding that masks give members of the public “a false sense of confidence.”
Wearing a mask increases the likeliness that a person will touch their face, whether to scratch or adjust the mask.
“People are not protecting their eyes or other aspects where the virus enters your body,” she said. “The outside of a mask could be contaminated. The key is hand washing. Even in the hospital setting, we find that it’s removing personal protective equipment that can actually lead to infection.”
Public Health Ontario set out guidelines on how to wear and remove masks, reminding users to wash their hands with soap and water or use hand sanitizer thoroughly before and after mask use.
Public health officials point out that for a mask to be effective, it needs to fit securely and cover the nose and mouth without leaving any gaps from the face. The guide also reminds people to discard a mask properly when it becomes damp and ineffective.
While most agencies recommend people avoid masks, the Washington Post reported this week that anonymous source within the U.S. Centre for Disease Control that American health officials may recommend DIY cloth coverings to help curb spread while reminding people that surgical and N95 masks should be reserved for medical staff.
Are homemade masks effective?
Health Canada has cautioned the public about using homemade masks, warning that they may not effectively block virus particles transmitted through “coughing, sneezing or certain medical procedures.”
“Homemade masks are not medical devices and consequently are not regulated,” the agency says. “They do not provide complete protection from the coronavirus because of a potential loose fit and the materials used.”
Groups like Mask Makers are sewing DIY masks for themselves and for frontline healthcare workers.
“Michael Garron Hospital put out a call,” says Dr. Emily Howell, a chiropractor and owner of Ashbridges Health Centre. The hospital’s PPE drive is asking people who can sew to make 1,000 masks a week. “When it came from the hospital, obviously I knew we’re in trouble.”
Howell is among the volunteers working to deliver DIY masks for nursing homes, hospice centres, chemo centres and medical centres. While taking photos of her product on the street in front of her clinic for NOW, pedestrians were immediately drawn to her and asked if the masks were for sale. She said they are strictly donations.
Dr. Emily Howell finishing off a DIY mask.
“They’re not as good as the medical ones in terms of quality and filtering ability,” says Howell, explaining that her masks would not be used by doctors, nurses or hospital staff. Instead, the hospital will offer them to visitors and patients being discharged into the public. “The ones that I’m making have a pocket so you can put a filter between the layers. They can also put vacuum bags in between.”
“As a health care provider, this is what I do,” Howell adds. “I feel completely useless with an office that’s closed. I’m just sitting around. I can sew, so why not? And I have Wonder Woman fabric.”