As countries begin to ramp up testing over the spread of the novel coronavirus, new data is suggesting that asymptomatic people — those who test positive for the disease caused by the virus but don’t show symptoms — are helping to circulate COVID-19.
As a result, some are beginning to ask: should everyone be wearing more personal protective equipment (PPE), such as face masks, in their day-to-day lives in order to prevent the virus from spreading, even if they appear healthy?
A report by Singaporean researchers published by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) estimated that around 10 per cent of new infections are being spread by either healthy-looking, asymptomatic people or people who have yet to develop the disease’s flu-like symptoms.
During an interview with NPR on Tuesday, the director of the CDC also said as much as 25 per cent of all U.S. cases remained asymptomatic — a figure that could be as high as 54,000 among the 216,000 cases the country reported as of Wednesday.
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Health officials in Canada have said the need for healthy people to wear face masks remains low, even amid growing evidence of considerable spread through asymptomatic carriers.
Speaking at a press conference on Wednesday, Health Minister Patty Hajdu was asked if health officials’ suggestions not to wear masks were intended to prioritize protective equipment for front-line health-care workers.
“I think, first of all, the premise that the science is clear is not accurate,” said Hadju. “But there are obviously growing thoughts around the use of masks for general public wearing.
“But yes, it is absolutely critical that people are wearing masks outside, and it is certainly their prerogative to do that, by the way, that we’re not taking away masks that are surgical or specialized, that are extremely necessary on the front line, and that we’re not using masks in a way that are not appropriate.”
Hajdu also said N95 masks won’t be able to properly protect wearers unless they are “fit-tested” and that most of the general public doesn’t realize masks won’t provide any additional protection unless users are wearing them properly.
Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, agreed the use of masks by the general public would do very little to protect from the virus and said medical masks should be conserved for front-line health-care workers dealing directly with the virus.
“I think the number 1 concern of the health system is that the supply of medical masks, respirators must be preserved for health workers, those who are looking after patients,” Tam said.
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“That is probably the number 1 reason for making sure that the public understands that.”
The chief public health officer stressed that health officials already know the measures that work against the virus: physical and social distancing. Tam has previously said the use of masks could also present detrimental effects, such as wearers touching their faces more often and having a “false sense of confidence.”
B.C.’s provincial health officer, Dr. Bonnie Henry, told reporters on Wednesday, however, that she was “not against” widespread use of non-medical masks.
Some countries have also begun implementing more widespread use of face masks. Austria announced on Monday that they would be mandatory for grocery store shoppers.
But as Canada’s own health officials have hinted, enforcing public use of such masks would most likely further endanger an already critical supply of protective equipment for Canada’s front-line workers.
Provincial health officials across Canada have since raised the alarm over dwindling stockpiles of PPE and ventilators, while reports of hospitals rationing their protective equipment among their health-care workers — effectively placing them at higher risk — have surfaced.
Speaking to reporters in Ottawa on Wednesday, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was not able to assure Canadians the country would not face a shortage of much-needed medical equipment, despite the federal government’s reassurances of equipment stockpiles and production.
Dr. Teela Johnson, a Toronto-based emergency care physician, said front-line health-care workers were “getting mixed messages” over whether or not Ontario would have enough PPE for them.
“Sometimes, we’re hearing that the province is going to be OK, we have enough protective equipment for everyone,” Johnson told Global News in a previous interview. ”
“And then other times, we’re hearing we definitely have to be careful with our supply, things are gonna get much worse in the next few weeks, and we want to make sure that we have appropriate supply for when that really happens.”
— With files from Global News’ Emerald Bensadoun, the Canadian Press and the Associated Press