By: James Burrows

For several weeks now the World Health Organization (WHO), the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) in the US and the Canadian government have recommended that those not working in the healthcare industry should avoid wearing masks. That conclusion has shifted quickly as more research becomes available on asymptomatic individuals spreading the virus. 

While physical distancing and frequent hand washing are still the most important strategies for preventing spread of the disease, the CDC and Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, are now recommending that when in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores, pharmacies, and public transportation, that everyone wear a homemade cloth face covering. Surgical masks and N95 respirator masks are still to be reserved for healthcare workers. 

Healthcare workers are currently facing a severe shortage of protective gear, including surgical masks, N95 respirator masks, and other personal protective equipment (PPE) in both the US and Canada. 

Dr. Tam has until recently been hesitant to recommend mask usage for the general population but is now officially endorsing face mask use for the general public. In the past Dr. Tam has been concerned that constant adjusting of masks could lead to people touching their face more and has instead focused on hand washing and physical distancing. 

“Know that masks can become contaminated on the outside or when touched by your hands,” noted Dr. Tam on Twitter last week. Avoid touching your face mask while using it, wash & disinfect if fabric or discard & replace it with a new mask as soon as it gets damp.”

On Monday Dr. Tam officially endorsed the use of homemade masks but is warning against relaxing other habits, such as physical distancing, hand washing, and touching your face. 

Reports from China as early as January suggested that highly contagious asymptomatic or mildly symptomatic young people could be spreading the disease without realizing it. In a study released last week by the CDC numerous examples of presymptomatic spread were discussed. One alarming report of a choir practice in Washington on March 10 has received wide attention and the report noted that “presymptomatic transmission likely played a role in SARS-CoV-2 transmission to approximately 40 of 60 choir members.” 

Some have noted that some Asian countries that widely use masks have experienced milder outbreaks but the correlation isn’t quite that even, as Singapore has not recommended masks but due to high levels of testing, quick contract tracing, and isolation for positive cases and contacts, has been able to keep the virus under control. Singapore has recently shifted course, however, citing evidence of asymptomatic spread of the virus and is planning to distribute masks to every home.  

The CDC recommends that homemade cloth face masks should: “fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, and allow for breathing without restrictions.  They should also be able to be laundered or machine dried without damage or change to shape.”  

For more information on how to properly clean and use a face mask visit: cdc.gov

Currently there are many online resources for making your own face mask, including: instructables.com and cnn.com

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