Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam announced that Canadians should wear a mask as an added layer of protection whenever physical distancing is not possible. This is a timely reminder for us as the province eases COVID restrictions. Here are a few points about mask-wearing and why you should do it:
Can masks prevent me from catching COVID-19?
Here’s the bottom line: Wearing a mask alone, especially non-medical ones, will not protect you from catching the virus. Masks may not be effective in blocking some virus particles that are transmitted around you because of the potential loose fit and the materials used. However, wearing a good fitting mask coupled with good hygiene and physical distancing is an additional measure that can protect you and more importantly, prevent the spread of the virus. Considering that some people can be asymptomatic (they carry the virus but don’t show any COVID-19 symptoms), wearing a mask can protect others more than it protects the wearer.
- Stay home if you are sick. Wear a mask if you need to go outside.
- Minimize exposure even if you’re not sick. You don’t have to wear a mask if you can maintain two metres (six feet) of distance from others when outside. If you can’t – for example if you are taking public transportation or when grocery shopping – you should wear a mask.
- The best prevention is maintaining good hygiene and following public health measures such as physical distancing and hand washing.
If masks are helpful, why did health experts advise against it when the pandemic started?
Two reasons come to mind:
- Since this is a new virus strain, scientists had to rely on previous studies about similar viruses. The findings from these studies did not support the efficacy of wearing non-medical masks. But this is a developing situation – as more evidence show that masks can help mitigate the spread of the virus (based on clinical studies and the experience of countries that have successfully kept their cases low), health advisories have changed to reflect these developments.
- Prescribing it early on could have caused a situation where essential workers would have to compete with the general public for mask supply. As it is, there is already a shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) which includes masks. We didn’t need to further complicate this for our health workers who needed PPE the most.
What kind of mask should I wear?
There are two types of masks – medical-grade and non-medical. Surgical masks and N95 respirators are medical-grade masks that provide greater protection. These are prescribed for health care workers. Non-medical masks include cloth masks and other face coverings like bandannas. These are appropriate for the general public for daily use.
A good cloth face covering should:
- allow for easy breathing
- fit securely to the head with ties and ear loops
- include multiple layers of fabric
- allow for breathing without restriction
- be comfortable and not require frequent adjustment
- maintain their shape after washing and drying
- optional: A pocket for putting in a paper towel or disposable coffee filter for increased benefit.
Cloth masks should not be placed on young children below two-years old. Anybody who has trouble breathing, unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance should not wear one.
What’s the proper way of wearing and handling them?
Wash your hands before putting your mask on. Handle it by touching only the ties or ear loops. Make sure that the mask covers your nose and mouth and it fits snugly. It can be uncomfortable at first but do your best not to touch it or adjust it often. Doing this will defeat its purpose. Continue to maintain good hygiene, hand washing and physical distancing even while wearing a mask.
If you need to take it off temporarily, store your mask where it will not be exposed to open air. Never share your used mask with others. Change it as soon as possible if it gets damp or dirty. You should wash it after each wear. Your mask can go in with your usual laundry load.
If you’re using a disposable mask, dispose of it properly. After taking it off, fold it in half so that your germs and droplets are contained inside. Fold it again until it looks like a roll. Wrap it in tissue before throwing in the trash. Wash your hands after handling it.
Can establishments require me to wear a mask?
Yes, grocery stores and other service establishments can require you to wear a mask. They can enforce rules that are intended to protect their clients and staff. They can also refuse your business if you do not wish to follow their guidelines. If you don’t have a mask, some stores provide it for free or for a minimal fee.
Where to get a mask:
You can either make one or buy a ready-made mask. There are so many how-to tutorials on YouTube you can follow using materials you already have around the house. You don’t even need to sew with this example below:
But if you’re not crafty, you can consider buying from:
- The Cutting Edge ( A program of the Canadian Women’s Institute)
- Old Hat
- Face Masks for Manitoba (This wonderful group makes and gives away masks for free. However, due to the demand, the current wait time is three weeks)
- Check Facebook Buy & Sell groups or Kijiji
- Fashion brands like Old Navy, Gap and Roots.
Sources: Canadians should wear masks as an ‘added layer of protection,’ says Tam, Kathleen Harris, CBC News; About non-medical masks and face coverings, Canada.ca; and Use of cloth face coverings to help slow the spread of COVID-19, CDC. Accessed May 21, 2020.
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