Earlier this month, Alberta’s chief medical health officer Dr. Deena Hinshaw said wearing non-medical face masks could be an “added benefit” to prevent the spread of COVID-19 and recommended people wear them in situations where it could be difficult to social distance.
Days later, you can still see many bare faces as people line up to get into grocery stores.
PhD candidate Doris Zhang is part of a University of Alberta psychology focus group studying the culture and perception of face masks. The team includes Dr. Kim Noels, Dr. Heath Young-Leslie and Dr. Nigel Lou.
“People might try to avoid wearing face masks in the community possibly because they do not want to be labelled as sick or contagious by others around them,” Zhang said.
Zhang said it is not common for people to wear face masks in public places in North America like it is in other countries.
“In some east Asian countries like in Japan, China and South Korea, face masks are commonly worn. It’s almost like a cultural object there. So people use it frequently and they know how to use them,” Zhang said.
Non-medical or homemade masks won’t actually protect those who are wearing them, but the idea is it will prevent droplets from spreading when people are speaking and protect others around them, according to officials.
Zhang said people in those countries wear face masks for a variety of purposes, such as to protect their faces from cold air and pollutants. Celebrities wear masks to stay anonymous in public settings.
“In these countries, face masks have become a fashion accessory, so people wear them to look cool,” Zhang said.
Several recent medical studies suggest at least 80 per cent of people infected with COVID-19 will have mild or no symptoms.
Masks could prevent the spread. Zhang said to see more people actually wear them, there needs to be more awareness.
“We may need more public education about the purposes and the effectiveness of wearing face masks from medical experts as well as instructions on how to use and manage them properly,” Zhang said.
Zhang said they are still looking for more people to be a part of their research and are particularly interested in talking to more Chinese-Canadians.
In early April, Hinshaw said asymptomatic spread is happening more than initially thought.
Including a face mask in Alberta Health’s suggested options for protection was done “based on a review of the best evidence possible,” she said.
She said physical distancing and handwashing still offer the best protection. If people are always two metres away from others, a mask isn’t necessary. They could provide protection when there are people in closer contact with others and physical distancing cannot be observed, officials said.
Wash your hands before and after putting the mask on, Hinshaw said.