To wear or not to wear? Canadian doctors weigh in on use of face masks for all

TORONTO — While the World Health Organization and Canadian public health officials have staunchly advised against the widespread use of face masks to prevent the spread of COVID-19, other countries have taken the opposite approach by strongly encouraging or even mandating they be worn in public.

Japan and South Korea, two countries that have been relatively successful in curbing the spread of the coronavirus, distributed face masks to every household. Austria has ordered that everyone must wear a face mask in supermarkets and, more recently, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have imposed mandatory mask-wearing at all times in public.

Even the U.S. is expected to change its tune after weeks of following the WHO’s policy that masks should only be worn by health-care workers, people with the disease, or anyone who is in close contact with someone who has the virus.

Earlier this week, the Trump administration signalled that it was formalizing new guidance on face masks. Government officials are expected to suggest that Americans living in hard-hit areas should wear face coverings, including non-medical masks, T-shirts, and bandanas, when they’re out in public.

There have even been reports the WHO is evaluating its policy on the use of masks in light of recent studies that suggest people who don’t have any symptoms or haven’t exhibited symptoms yet can still infect others.

In Canada, however, public health officials have maintained that healthy individuals do not need to wear a mask out in public and that face coverings may even give people a false sense of security.

On Monday, Chief Public Health Officer Dr. Theresa Tam said masks may even tempt people to touch their faces more often and therefore, increase their risk of infection.

Despite this messaging, some Canadian doctors have started to encourage the use of face masks in public as an additional strategy to combat the disease.

SHOULD EVERYONE WEAR A MASK?

Infectious diseases specialist Dr. Jeff Kwong says that when it comes to face masks, the first consideration should be for health-care workers.

“First and foremost, we need to ensure that there is enough supply of masks for our health-care workers,” he told CTV’s Your Morning on Friday.

While the federal government has repeatedly said that more personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks, are on the way, some health-care providers are sounding the alarm that supplies are desperately needed.

On Thursday, the Canadian Medical Association (CMA) conducted a poll that found a third of its 5,000 members believed they would run out of PPE within two days.

For medical-grade face masks, such as the in-demand N95 respirators, and even surgical masks, Kwong said that priority should be given to health-care workers.

However, that doesn’t mean Canadians can’t benefit from some kind of face covering.

Earlier this week, infectious disease specialist Dr. Abdu Sharkawy told CTV National News there is enough evidence to suggest that homemade or makeshift masks can provide some protection.

“Anything that covers your nose and your mouth with a reasonable seal. You can fashion out of cloth, you can fashion even out of a vacuum bag,” he said. “As long as it can stand a little bit of humidity, that’s very useful. If it’s something that’s reusable that’s cloth that can be washed, that’s also very reasonable.”

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) even recommends bandanas or scarves as a last resort.

Kwong agrees that homemade face masks can be used in addition to physical distancing to protect against infection, especially when it’s difficult to keep a safe distance, such as in the grocery store.

“If you use physical distancing properly, if you do it properly, you should not be spreading it to others anyway,” he explained. “Masks are just a supplemental strategy for times when you can’t do your physical distancing ideally.”

As for the suggestion that wearing face masks might increase the risk of people touching their faces, Kwong said mask-wearers just need to be extra careful about washing their hands before and after putting on and taking off their masks and to be mindful of not touching it while they’re wearing it.

“I think it takes a bit of discipline to not touch your face and not touch your mask when you are wearing a mask,” he said. 

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