Can wearing a medical face mask protect you against the new coronavirus? It’s a question many people are asking. The answer is rather complex and depends on what type of mask under investigation.
The regular surgical masks that doctors and surgeons wear offers little, if any, protection against contracting the novel Coronavirus. These masks are designed to keep the person wearing the mask from expelling air-borne droplets into the air.
Some people wear surgical masks because they are sick with a cold or the flu and they don’t want to get other people sick. But if a person is sick, it’s best to simply not to go to public areas.
People sick with COVID-19, however, should wear face masks to reduce the risk of infection to people around them, according to the CDC. Health care workers and those taking care of someone infected with COVID-19 in close settings (at home or in a healthcare facility), should also wear face masks.
A more specialized mask, known as an N95 respirator, can protect against the new coronavirus, also called SARS-CoV-2. The respirator is thicker than a surgical mask. The Centers for Disease Prevention and Control (CDC) do not recommend them for public use, at least not at this point. This type of mask which filters out 95 percent of airborne particles is only effective in blocking aerosolized droplets, such as from a cough or a sneeze. Dried virus particles that are airborne will pass through the masks, since the new Coronavirus (COVID-19) is only 1 micron in diameter, and the N95 respirator masks only stop particles 3 microns or larger.
One reason the CDC does not recommend an N95 mask for public use is that health care workers receive retraining annually on how to properly fit these respirators around the nose, cheeks, and chin, ensuring that wearers don’t breathe around the edges of the respirator.
When fitted properly, these masks make breathing somewhat difficult because of the thickness of the mask material. Healthcare professionals are acclimated to their use and only wear them for short periods.
Experts note that removing a mask properly, whether it is a surgical mask or an N95 respirator, is important. Touching the front when taking it off, could end up contaminating the wearer. People wearing surgical masks should dispose of them after each use
As for pet owners putting face masks on their dogs, one dog in Hong Kong had a “weak positive” for COVID-19, but it seems likely that the virus got into the dog’s respiratory tract while the pup was sniffing around, not because the dog was actually infected, as it didn’t have symptoms of the disease, the Hong Kong government reported on Feb. 28. Except for this instance, there’s no evidence that dogs can catch the New Coronavirus.
At the present time, the risk is relatively low in the U.S. and buying face masks is not just unnecessary, but panic buying may result in a shortage for healthcare professionals.
The best thing the public can do now is to be vigilant for symptoms, avoid crowds, if possible, and above all, wash their hands regularly for at least 20 seconds.