Non-medical masks can help stop the spread of COVID-19, Canada’s top doctor says

Canada’s chief public health officer now says that wearing a non-medical mask can help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Dr. Theresa Tam, the top doctor at the Public Health Agency of Canada, said today that Canadians can use non-medical masks in tandem with social distancing measures to limit the transmission of the deadly virus when out grocery shopping or at a pharmacy.

The recommendation represents an about-face for the public health officer — who until now has resisted the idea of non-health care professionals wearing masks.

“Wearing a non-medical mask is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you,” Tam said — while warning that a non-medical mask doesn’t necessarily protect the person wearing it.

“A non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or landing on surfaces,” Tam said.

Watch: Dr. Theresa Tam discusses non-medical mask use

Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Dr Theresa Tam spoke with reporters on Parliament Hill on Monday 2:21

Tam has long maintained that masks should be reserved for the sick among us, and for doctors and nurses working in hospitals.

“It can sometimes make it worse, if the person puts their finger in their eye or touches their face under their mask,” Tam said in January during a teleconference with reporters.

She has also said wearing a mask could give people a “false sense of security” that could encourage wearers to relax physical distancing.

On Monday, however, Tam said wearing a mask is an added layer of protection that can help prevent pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic people from inadvertently infecting others with COVID-19. She said the policy change comes in response to “emerging information” from the science and medical community.

Watch: What you need to know about wearing a mask

Dr. Samir Gupta provides crucial information about wearing a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic and what to think about before putting one on. 2:30

She said new research on patients aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship — as many as 712 people who were aboard the vessel contracted the virus — and a recently published report out of Singapore were behind the policy change.

She said Canadians shouldn’t wear medical-grade masks like the N95, as those supplies have to be reserved for medical professionals. She said Canadians could use t-shirts or cotton sheets and elastic bands to create makeshift masks at home.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) announced a similar policy shift over the weekend, saying that “new evidence” had led it to recommend that people wear cloth face coverings in public areas.

“We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms (“asymptomatic”) and that even those who eventually develop symptoms (“pre-symptomatic”) can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms,” the agency said in a statement on its website.

“This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing, or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms.”

The CDC is recommending masks in settings where “other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain,” such as grocery stores and pharmacies.

Both the Canada and U.S. health agencies have recommended people avoid crowded places and keep a distance of at least two arms’ lengths — approximately two metres — from others as much as possible.

WATCH | Can cloth masks protect you from COVID-19? Two doctors weigh in:

Doctors answer your questions about the coronavirus, including whether people should be wearing homemade or cloth masks when they are outside. 3:30

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