B.C.’s top doctor weighs in on benefits of non-medical masks: ‘Not going to protect you’

Changing advice on non-medical masks and COVID-19 protection from B.C. health officials
After weeks of being told that non-medical masks aren't terribly helpful to prevent the spread of coronavirus, public health officials are now changing their advice. The latest information is that the masks may help prevent asymptomatic individuals from spreading the disease. John Hua reports.

B.C.’s provincial health officer says non-medical masks are fine to wear, but “not an alternative to the things we know work” to stop the spread of COVID-19, such as physical distancing and washing hands.

Dr. Bonnie Henry made the comments Monday after Dr. Theresa Tam, the country’s chief medical health officer, said Canadians who aren’t showing symptoms of the virus can wear the masks as “an additional measure” to protect others during the pandemic.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: Wearing non-medical masks will help others but not you, Tam says

Tam said that there was growing evidence that people can transmit the virus before they realize they have it.

But Henry said while wearing a mask may prevent someone from giving COVID-19 to others, masks will not stop the wearer from contracting the disease.

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Alberta’s Dr. Hinshaw lays out best practices for wearing face masks to slow COVID-19 spread
Alberta’s Dr. Hinshaw lays out best practices for wearing face masks to slow COVID-19 spread

COVID-19 is most commonly transmitted when an infected person spreads virus-laden droplets by coughing or sneezing.

Fabric masks can catch some of those droplets, Henry said.

“It’s not going to protect you from getting infected with this virus. But for short term, it is a similar analogy to coughing into your sleeve or coughing into a tissue,” she said.

“It is not a recommendation, it is a permissive use, if you will.”

READ MORE: Vancouver homeless charity turns to homemade masks amid coronavirus pandemic

Both Henry and Tam stressed that people wearing non-medical masks must still avoid touching their faces, must practice social and physical distancing, and must continue to frequently wash their hands.

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The federal government has also published a list of considerations for people who want to wear a non-medical mask.

Health authorities switch gears on masks in public
Health authorities switch gears on masks in public

The B.C. Centre For Disease Control has been recommending masks for people who are ill since at least January, but the agency had warned that they may be “less effective when the wearer is not sick themselves.

“Masks may give a person a false sense of security & are likely to increase the number of times a person will touch their own face — to adjust the mask, etc,” said the agency in a January update.

Henry added that medical-grade masks and respirators must be reserved for front-line health-care workers who are at the highest risk of contracting COVID-19.

READ MORE: Coronavirus: U.S. encouraging residents to wear non-medical face masks in public

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On Friday, U.S. officials announced new federal guidelines recommending that citizens cover their face when outside their homes to help slow the spread of the virus.

The World Health Organization said Monday it was “evaluating” the use of medical and non-medical masks.

“For example, countries could consider using masks in communities where other measures such as cleaning hands and physical distancing are harder to achieve because of lack of water or cramped living conditions,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.