Will homemade masks protect us from the coronavirus?

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As more health-care workers treat those affected by the novel coronavirus, there are concerns around mask shortages. To help meet surging demand and offer protection, people are crafting their own masks at home, either for themselves or those on the frontlines.

But are homemade masks effective in protecting against COVID-19? According to experts, not really.

“They don’t really work,” said Dr. Sohail Gandhi, the president of the Ontario Medical Association.

“They don’t have the ability to filter the virus particles because the virus particles are very, very small, and most homemade fabrics simply don’t have that ability to filter them.”

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Dr. Craig Janes, director of the School of Public Health and Health Systems at the University of Waterloo, echoed this, and said small droplets — like the ones spread through coughs or sneezes — can still easily get through DIY masks.

“But having said that, masks can do other things other than just simply prevent direct aspiration of the virus. One is they may just keep you from touching your mouth.”

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While homemade masks are generally ineffective in hospital settings, Gandhi said if someone is sick, wearing a DIY mask can help prevent the spread of COVID-19 — to a point.

“Sometimes, when you cough or sneeze, it will catch the droplets, so there might be a little benefit there,” he said.

“But certainly for the average person, they are not effective.”

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Do health-care workers use homemade masks?

Countries around the world are currently scrambling to obtain protective masks for health-care providers on the frontlines of treating patients with COVID-19 as hospitals and other facilities begin to ration their supplies to prevent a shortage.

Health Canada cautions around the use of homemade masks, and says they are “not medical devices and consequently are not regulated, like medical masks and respirators” are.

The government agency also says DIY masks “may not be effective in blocking virus particles that may be transmitted by coughing, sneezing or certain medical procedures.”

“They do not provide complete protection from the coronavirus because of a potential loose fit and the materials used,” Health Canada says.

Health Canada also says that if you are a healthy individual, the use of a mask is not recommended for preventing the spread of COVID-19.

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Previous research has found that homemade fabric masks are less effective than surgical masks.

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A 2013 U.K. study that looked at masks made from cotton T-shirts found that the homemade masks were not effective protection in a flu pandemic.

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The researchers concluded that homemade masks “should only be considered as a last resort to prevent droplet transmission from infected individuals,” but were “better than no protection.”

How Canadians can help

While homemade masks are not very effective in protecting against COVID-19, Gandhi said health-care workers greatly appreciate the thought behind them. It is incredibly humbling when people come together to help frontline workers, he said.

For Canadians who want to help stock masks or supplies for health-care workers, Gandhi said there are donation drives, like the Michael Garron Hospital personal protective equipment drive in Toronto.

These drop-off centres or drives allow people or companies, like auto mechanics, who have protective equipment to donate, like unused or leftover N95 masks. If Canadians don’t have equipment or professional masks to donate, they can also volunteer, Gandhi said.

“People can volunteer their time and start calling industries to spread the word, by saying, ‘Hey there’s a personal protective equipment drive. Can you contribute supplies?'” he said.

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“They can amplify that message that this is where we’re picking up, and this is where [supplies are] being donated. That would be a huge help.”
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There are also certain companies, like 3M, that have ramped up production to make more high-quality masks that do filter out the novel coronavirus’s tiny particles, Gandhi said. Masks produced in this way can often be used in health-care settings.

What masks are most effective in protecting against the coronavirus?

Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, previously told Global News there are two kinds of masks being used to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

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The first is traditional surgical masks and the other is N95 respirator masks, which are made of thicker material and sit more tightly on the face.

The N95 mask, as the name suggests, is 95 per cent effective in protecting against anything larger than 0.3 microns.

“In hospitals, health-care workers are likely, if they are exposed to an infected individual, to be using well-fitted N95 masks,” Fish explained.

Surgical masks prevent large droplets from coming in contact with parts of the face, Fish said.

Health officials say the coronavirus is mostly transmitted through human-to-human contact, which includes droplets produced while sneezing or coughing.

“Wearing a surgical mask that is very well-fitted would reduce the amount of virus you’d be exposed to,” Fish said.

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More than masks, health experts said it’s important for people to remember common hygiene practices — including handwashing and coughing and sneezing into their elbows — and engage in physical distancing.

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“The best way to protect yourself from the coronavirus is to wash your hands for 20 seconds and to not touch your eyes, nose and mouth,” Gandhi said.

“And stay home.”

— With files from Global News’ Maham Abedi and a file from the Canadian Press

Questions about COVID-19? Here are some things you need to know:

Health officials caution against all international travel. Returning travellers are legally obligated to self-isolate for 14 days, beginning March 26, in case they develop symptoms and to prevent spreading the virus to others. Some provinces and territories have also implemented additional recommendations or enforcement measures to ensure those returning to the area self-isolate.

Symptoms can include fever, cough and difficulty breathing — very similar to a cold or flu. Some people can develop a more severe illness. People most at risk of this include older adults and people with severe chronic medical conditions like heart, lung or kidney disease. If you develop symptoms, contact public health authorities.

To prevent the virus from spreading, experts recommend frequent handwashing and coughing into your sleeve. They also recommend minimizing contact with others, staying home as much as possible and maintaining a distance of two metres from other people if you go out.

For full COVID-19 coverage from Global News, click here.

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