TORONTO — As Canadian health officials treat Canada’s first diagnosed case of a new type of coronavirus spreading around the world, doctors are repeatedly stressing the fact that the risk of further transmission is quite low. Yet members of the public may find themselves wondering if they should be taking extra steps to limit any potential exposure, including buying face masks. A few doctors weigh in:

Do masks help?

In a hospital setting, absolutely. Dr. Isaac Bogoch, an infectious diseases specialist at the Toronto General Hospital, says proper equipment is an essential part of all infection protection and control measures among staff at health-care facilities. Masks, coupled with proper gowns, gloves and treatment rooms, help limit the spread of an airborne illness within a hospital setting and go a long way towards ensuring the virus does not follow uninfected patients home. At a Sunday afternoon news conference, staff at the Toronto hospital where the lone Canadian patient is being treated said the facility is following all possible protection protocols and remains safe for all patients.

Does this mean I should run out and buy a mask?

No. Bogoch said the benefits of proper masks worn by hospital staff are largely lost when applied to the sort widely available for purchase at local drug stores. Bogoch said such masks may offer an additional layer of protection if worn by someone who is already infected, but has more limited value for healthy members of the public.

“Is it time to start wearing masks in public places in Toronto? Absolutely not,” Bogoch said, referencing the city where the first Canadian coronavirus case was diagnosed and treated.

Dr. Sohail Gandhi, president of the Ontario Medical Association, agrees, noting early data on the new form of virus suggests masks won’t be especially effective.

So is there anything I can do to protect myself?

Gandhi says that while masks may have helped ward off the spread of SARS during the deadly 2003 outbreak, preliminary research indicates the same won’t be true of the current virus.

“Handwashing is more effective than face masks with this particular virus, particularly if you’re not infected,” he said.

Toronto Medical Officer of Health Dr. Eileen de Villa echoed a call for increased handwashing, but noted that the arrival of coronavirus is not the main reason behind the advice. Both she and Bogoch said washing hands with soap and water, plus limiting contact with one’s face, makes sense during the Canadian flu season currently in full swing.

De Villa also urged one other measure known to limit the spread of all airborne diseases.

“We do encourage people that when they’re sick with a respiratory illness, best to stay home and limit transmission,” she said. “It also gives one a chance to recover.”

This report by the Canadian Press was first published Jan. 27, 2020.

The Canadian Press

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