As COVID-19 continues to impact the lives of millions worldwide, there has been fierce debate about how best to manage the virus and help prevent it spreading further. One of the most contentious issues to come out of this ongoing debate is whether people should be mandated to wear a face.
But what is the evidence to support the wearing of a face mask, and why is it necessary?
What is the Global Consensus on Face Masks?
There is no global consensus on the use of face masks and attitudes continue to vary wildly around the world.
In many Asian countries it was commonplace for people to wear a face mask when ill even before the pandemic. Having lived through the 2002 – 2004 SARS epidemic, many people in Asia were therefore quick to reach for a face mask as soon as COVID-19 hit. Whereas in Western countries such as Europe and the US, the wearing of face masks are a relatively new cultural phenomenon.
What Does the WHO Say About Face Masks?
In June 2020 the World Health Organization (WHO) updated it’s guidance on the use of face masks following new evidence.
Previously the WHO’s advice was that you only needed to wear a face mask if you were a health worker dealing with a suspected or confirmed COVID-19 case or a care giver. However the latest guidance is much broader and also recommends the use of face masks for:
- All those working in a clinical setting, not just those dealing with COVID-19 cases;
- Individuals over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions that put them at increased risk from COVID-19, particularly if they are unable to social distance; and
- The general public where there is widespread transmission in the community and social distancing is difficult, e.g. on public transport or in crowded environments.
However the WHO also stresses there is still a global shortage of medical-grade masks and personal protective equipment (PPE), so for the general public they advise wearing a non-medical cloth or fabric covering instead. These are now widely available to buy in retail stores and online, or you can also choose to make your own.
What is the Evidence For Wearing Face Masks?
The main issue is that as COVID-19 is a new virus there are still limited studies about the disease and the best ways to prevent transmission. What we know about asymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is continuously changing, and there is also new evidence emerging that airborne transmission of COVID-19 may be possible and more prevalent than previously thought.
As we still have lots to learn, the wearing of a mask is widely encouraged to prevent asymptomatic carriers from unknowingly transmitting COVID-19 either into the air or directly to another individual. Remember that wearing a face mask is more about preventing you from accidentally spreading the virus to vulnerable people, rather than reducing your own risk of becoming infected.
If you are experiencing COVID-19 symptoms you should isolate yourself and follow the guidance of your public health authorities. However if for whatever reason you are able to or have no choice but to leave the house while symptomatic, you should absolutely wear a mask. You may even want to consider wearing one while isolating at home, as evidence shows this can help you reduce the risk of passing it on to a family members, particularly if physical distancing is not feasible in your household.
Is There Any Reason Not to Wear a Face Mask?
Not really. As we still don’t know enough about COVID-19, and with a considerable proportion of cases known to be asymptomatic, wearing a mask in public places is a small action you can take to play your part in helping to curb the spread of the virus.
However it’s critical that you use a face mask correctly, safely and don’t get a false sense of security from wearing it. When wearing a face mask you should:
- Continue to follow broader advice about personal hygiene, including regularly washing your hands and avoiding touching your face.
- Continue to maintain social distancing, the WHO recommends at least 1 metre (3 feet).
- Ensure you wash your hands or use antibacterial hand gel before applying and immediately after removing your mask.
- Dispose of single-use masks immediately after use, folding them in on themselves, and placing them in a bin.
- Wash re-usable masks after every use.
We understand that many of you may find wearing a mask uncomfortable. If you are required to wear a mask while in public places or are returning to your workplace and must wear a mask at your desk, look to find ways to manage this. For example planning ahead to limit the time you spend out doing your grocery shopping, or taking regular breaks outside in the fresh air where you may be able to remove your mask.
Should I Wear a Face Mask?
In short, yes. With evidence continuing to emerge around the asymptomatic and airborne transmission of COVID-19, millions of us could be carrying the virus without realising it. There is a genuine risk that you could unknowingly pass the virus onto someone vulnerable, that could become seriously ill or lose their life to COVID-19. As a global community, we should remain mindful and aware of this, and do all we can to slow the continuing spread of this pandemic and help us get back to some normality.
It’s also important to note that some countries, such as Hong Kong and the UK, have already introduced fines for people who don't wear face masks in public places, so make sure you check the latest rules and regulations in your community. It is likely other countries that have not already implemented similar measures will do so over the coming months, as we all continue to adapt to the new normal.