Maresa Fagan: Wearing a mask may become the new norm

Some EU countries have directed citizens to wear face masks when using public spaces. Maresa Fagan looks at the risks and benefits and if we will all need to wear masks
Maresa Fagan: Wearing a mask may become the new norm

As some European countries ease Covid-19 restrictions on movement they have directed citizens to wear face masks when using public spaces. The move is not entirely backed up by health authorities but may help to slow the spread of Covid-19. Here Maresa Fagan looks at the risks and benefits of wearing face masks and if we will need them in the weeks ahead.

A woman waiting outside a pharmacy wearing a protective mask against Covid-19 coronavirus in Bantry, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan
A woman waiting outside a pharmacy wearing a protective mask against Covid-19 coronavirus in Bantry, Co Cork. Picture Dan Linehan

IT is the new norm in a number of European countries. As governments attempt to shift out of pandemic mode towards some semblance of normality, citizens are being asked to wear face masks when using public transport, taking a trip to the shop, or using the local park.

The move started in the Czech Republic in March, and has since caught on in Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Turkey, Poland, and Germany.

There is conflicting guidance, however, on how useful face masks are in reducing the spread of coronavirus.

The World Health Organisation is not endorsing the practice of face masks for everyone. It has cautioned face masks can be contaminated by coughs and sneezes and might offer a false sense of security to the wearer.

The WHO recommends protective masks only for those who are sick and showing Covid-19 symptoms or for those caring for people suspected to have Covid-19 — in short, people on the frontline of the viral outbreak.

The organisation, which is leading the way in the global Covid-19 response, also says that masks are only effective when used in combination with frequent hand washing.

The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, on the other hand, has adopted a different approach and urged governments to consider the use of face masks among the general population as a “complementary measure” to their Covid-19 response.

The ECDC advises members of the public to wear face masks when visiting busy, closed spaces, such as grocery stores, shopping centres, or when using public transport. It also emphasises that healthcare workers should get priority for face masks and available personal protective equipment (PPE).

For use by members of the public, masks do not need to be of a medical or surgical grade and can be made of cloth or other textiles, says the European agency. A similar suggestion has also been made in the US, where the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has recommended the use of “simple cloth face coverings” made from common household materials.

A man with a face mask exits the nearly empty Westminster tube station in London, Monday, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)
A man with a face mask exits the nearly empty Westminster tube station in London, Monday, April 27, 2020. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)

In a number of countries, governments have introduced rules requiring citizens to wear a mask or face covering when using public spaces. Whether using public transport or taking a trip to the local shop, masks have become the norm as more and more countries relax lockdown measures introduced to reduce the spread of Covid-19. To date the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Austria, Turkey, Poland, and Germany have made wearing face masks in public mandatory.

When and where will I have to wear my mask?

If Ireland follows the lead of other European countries, we may have to wear masks or face coverings of some description in the weeks and months ahead. Some governments have made wearing masks mandatory as they move towards reopening businesses and public services and relax lockdown measures. The general trend has seen citizens wearing face masks when using public spaces, such as shops, public transport, and confined closed spaces rather than outdoor spaces, although masks are also a requirement in parks in some countries.

Does the HSE endorse face masks for everyone?

The HSE is following the advice of the WHO and says wearing a mask is unlikely to be of any benefit if you are not sick. Given the global demand for PPE, the HSE is prioritising the use of face masks and other protective equipment for staff working on the frontline in hospitals and nursing homes, and for carers and anyone interfacing directing with patients.

Will the HSE supply free masks?

It is unlikely the HSE will be in a position to provide free masks to members of the public given the shortage of personal protective equipment or PPE in Ireland and across the globe. Experts says that masks should be prioritised for use by staff working on the frontline rather than general use in the community.

Is there anything I need to know when using a face mask?

Care should be exercised when using masks, according to the ECDC. The agency says there is a risk that improper removal of the face mask, handling of a contaminated face mask, or an increased tendency to touch the face while wearing a face mask, might actually increase the risk of transmission.

There are some ground rules to bear in mind if you intend to wear a face mask during the pandemic:

  • Before putting on your mask, clean your hands with soap and water or hand sanitiser. Carefully cover your mouth and nose with the mask and tie the mask securely;
  • Do not touch the mask while wearing it — if you do, clean your hands. And do not use a damp or wet mask or reuse a mask;
  • When taking off your face mask, remove it from behind and put it in a bin straight away. Wash your hands after removing the mask.

Where do I buy my face masks?

Simple surgical face masks can be purchased from local chemists and pharmacies in packs of five or more, with prices working out at around €1 per mask. A number of online retailers are also selling masks.

Can I make my own mask?

A man, wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, eyes the camera while standing at a train station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, April 24, 2020. -AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko-
A man, wearing a protective face mask as a precaution against the spread of the new coronavirus, eyes the camera while standing at a train station in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Friday, April 24, 2020. -AP Photo/Natacha Pisarenko-

In the US, the CDC has advocated the use of face coverings as a type of mask and encouraged people to make their own. It says cloth face coverings made from household items or made at home from common materials can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.

As a general rule, the CDC says cloth face coverings should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face, be secured with ties or ear loops, include multiple layers of fabric, allow for breathing without restriction, and be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape.

The added bonus of making your own mask is the low cost and ability to wash and reuse the mask.

Cloth face coverings, the CDC says, should not be worn by children under the age of two, or anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

How to make your own mask: cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/prevent-getting-sick/diy-cloth-face-coverings.html

Are there different types of masks?

When most people think of a face mask, they tend to think of the small rectangular mask worn by healthcare staff. That’s a medical face mask, also known as surgical or procedure mask. This type of mask is disposable and must meet certain European standards.

Members of the public, however, are more likely to wear non-medical masks or ‘community’ masks, which can be self-made or commercial masks or face covers made of cloth, other textiles or other materials such as paper. These masks are not standardised and are not intended for use in healthcare settings or by healthcare professionals.

Face shields or visors are also used by healthcare staff who are working closely with patients on the frontline of the pandemic. The use of these Perspex visors that cover the eyes and face are limited in the community setting.

Staff working on the frontline of the Covid-19 pandemic may also require additional protection and use respirators or filtering face pieces (FFP) that are designed to protect them from exposure to the virus. In general, members of the public do not need to wear respirators unless they have an underlying condition and have been advised to.

Do I have to change my mask every day?

Guidance to date suggests that surgical masks should be replaced when wet or damp. This type of mask is generally used by healthcare and frontline staff for a short period of time. They are disposed of immediately following use.

Washable, reusable masks should be washed as soon as possible after each use, using detergent at 60C.

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