VANCOUVER — As global health leaders consider whether recommending face masks for the general population could curb the spread of COVID-19, B.C.’s top doctor says she’s been mulling over the same idea — with several caveats.
There is growing interest and adoption of face masks in Western countries as infection rates in some Asian countries with longtime mask use appear to be slow and with a “flatter curve” than the exponential growth in infections seen in Europe and the United States.
“This is something that we’ve been considering as well, knowing what’s been going on around the world,” said provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry when asked if she would endorse fabric or consumer-grade face masks. “They’re not a medical mask, but they can keep your droplets in when you’re out and about with others. What is not proven, is that they provide you any protection.”
Henry and medical professionals around the world have prefaced all discussion about widespread use of masks with reiteration that medical-grade, N-95 masks must be reserved for health-care workers on front-lines who are constantly exposed to the virus.
She also emphasized that masks are no substitute for hand-washing and physical distancing.
“If you are going to wear them, it can help reduce the droplets that you shed into the environment and if somebody is infected and has mild symptoms or early on in the illness it can prevent you from putting those droplets out,” said Henry. “It’s not something that’s proven, but it is something that probably does no harm.”
WHO considers changing policy
On Wednesday, the World Health Organization, which has been advising against the use of face masks, responded to growing interest in their efficacy, which reached a fever pitch this week as American health officials revealed they’re considering recommending them for the general public in the wake of growing research suggesting asymptomatic carriers may be responsible for a significant number of new infections.
“There’s an ongoing debate about the use of masks at the community level,” said WHO Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. “The WHO continues to gather all available evidence and continues to evaluate the potential use of masks more broadly to control COVID-19 transmission at the community level. This is still a very new virus, and we are learning all the time.”
As the international medical community considers whether to formally endorse masks, grassroots campaigns to promote their use seem to be driving the discussion.
A short video from a volunteer mask-maker in Toronto has been hugely popular in Canada, promoted by the #MGH1000masks campaign from Michael Garron Hospital, though the hospital is very clear that, “Hospital health-care providers will not use these masks. They have certified masks that they are required to wear.”
“To keep our community healthy and safe, Michael Garron Hospital is issuing a challenge to all east end sewists to collectively make 1,000 masks a week,” reads the hospital foundation’s website. “We want to see all east enders wearing a fabric mask when they need to be within six feet of other people, especially vulnerable populations and the elderly.”
Proper use isn’t so easy
The WHO has outlined several considerations for those choosing to wear masks, including how to take them off without spreading around the virus and throwing out disposable masks when they’re damp.
Henry also emphasized careful consideration of the fabric used to make masks at home.
“We’ve had incidents in the past where people, particularly people who have lung conditions, if you’re not using something that is easy to breathe through, and that you can wash and wash regularly, if not, then you can be increasing your risk of contaminating yourself or causing additional problems,” said Henry.
Ghebreyesus added that the WHO is gathering input from experts and no one should be surprised if their position on masks changes in the coming days.
“As the pandemic evolves, so does the evidence, and so does our advice,” he said.