Should You Wear a Surgical Mask? These Are the Latest Guidelines

UPDATE (April 4, 2020): The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its recommendations regarding the general public wearing face masks during the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. While it still does not recommend wearing surgical masks or N95 respirators, it now supports “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

The reasoning behind this new recommendation, the CDC website says, is because recent studies indicate that a high number of individuals with the novel coronavirus are asymptomatic and that the virus can be transmitted to others before symptoms become apparent. By wearing a cloth mask, you add an extra layer of protection between yourself and others when you may be speaking, coughing, or sneezing.

It is important to note that wearing a mask does not erase the need to adhere to social distancing guidelines. “It is critical to emphasize that maintaining six-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus,” the CDC website says. Additionally, according to NPR, as of an April 4 briefing of the coronavirus task force, the White House has urged people to stay at home as much as possible, especially over the next two weeks — including foregoing trips to the grocery store and pharmacy, if possible. These masks are protective measures for others during any essential runs when you absolutely have to leave the house, rather than excuses to leave the house.

“The next two weeks are extraordinarily important,” said Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator. “This is the moment to not be going to the grocery store, not going to the pharmacy, but doing everything you can to keep your family and your friends safe and that means everybody doing the 6-feet distancing, washing their hands.”

This post originally appeared on February 4, 2020:

This week, the CDC confirmed the first case of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, which has already killed 170 people in China, where the virus originated. While the CDC says it expects more cases, including the potential for more person-to-person spread, experts are encouraging the general public to take evidence-based prevention measures — which doesn’t include wearing surgical masks.

According to Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, the CDC doesn’t currently recommend the use of face masks for the general public.

“The virus is not currently spreading in the general community. While it is cold and flu season, we don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness,” Messonnier stated in a telebriefing on January 30.

Instead, the CDC and other experts encourage the public to focus on more common practices — like handwashing and covering coughs — to prevent the spread of infection.

Why you don’t need to buy a surgical mask for coronavirus

Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Keck Medicine of USC, says there are two major reasons not to rush out and buy a mask right now. First, the risk of contracting the coronavirus in the United States is currently low, assuming you’re not in direct contact with someone who may be infected.

Second, masks aren’t generally used for protecting yourself from an illness. “When we wear a mask, what we are doing is containing our secretions [to keep them] from getting to the person we are in contact with,” she says. “This is so the people who come close to you don’t get infected.”

Even if you’re physically near someone who might be infected with coronavirus, Nanda says you would have to be very close to catch it. “I would only wear the mask if I would be in proximity to another person in a small, closed room,” she says. “But you have to be very close to be infected. With the novel coronavirus, it’s within two meters.”

According to Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, masks can provide a basic barrier, but they’re not meant to be used for long periods of time.

“When you’re in public, the mask is only meant to be a simple barrier,” she says. “It will mostly keep you from inhaling large droplets for a short period, and keep you from touching your face, which is another way you inoculate organisms into your body.”

Another potential issue with surgical masks: Once they get moist from your breath, they don’t work. “They’re not really helpful after about five minutes since we inhale and exhale humid air, which dampens the mask so it loses its effectiveness,” says Maldonado. “If something lands on the mask when it’s moist, it will get absorbed.”

If you’re sick and want to protect others from catching what you have, wearing a surgical mask in public, especially in an enclosed area, could be an effective way to keep your illness to yourself.

“If you’re sitting in a waiting room, at least for that short period of time you’re in transit [the mask] will be dry and you’ll be able to keep yourself from coughing large droplets onto other people,” says Maldonado.

How to protect yourself from coronavirus

If you’re concerned about catching coronavirus — or any virus — the CDC’s current recommendations include avoiding contact with anyone you know who might be sick and practicing routine handwashing.

“It’s surprising how something so simple as handwashing really makes a difference,” Maldonado says. “Studies and experience show that when people wash their hands consistently the rates of disease really drop.”

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