Demand for face masks on the rise amid coronavirus outbreak — but are they effective?

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Surgical face mask sales in China jumped this week amid a deadly coronavirus outbreak.

Officials in the country urged the public to wear masks in a bid to prevent the virus — which has been detected in several countries, including the U.S. — from spreading.

People lined up to buy face masks, with many pharmacies having to limit sales to one package per customer.


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All residents in the city of Wuhan, where the outbreak was first detected, have been ordered to wear masks in public places, government staff have been urged to wear them at work and shopkeepers were told to post signs for their visitors.

Photos from the city’s transport stations, which were closed on Thursday, showed virtually everyone wearing face masks.

Fears that the virus, which has not been detected in Canada, would spread has also prompted higher sales of masks at some pharmacies in B.C., which is relatively close to the first confirmed U.S. case in Seattle.

Several Metro Vancouver pharmacies contacted by Global News this week said they are flying off the shelves.

One pharmacy located in Burnaby, B.C. saw a new shipment sell out within hours. Another in nearby New Westminster said the demand has been so high that manufacturers aren’t able to fill orders.


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But how much can face masks actually protect individuals against the spread of viruses?

Eleanor Fish, an immunology professor at the University of Toronto, explained there are two kinds of masks being used. The first is a traditional surgical mask and the other is called N95, which is made of thicker material and sits more tightly on the face.

“The issue with is it obviously doesn’t protect your eyes and they’re loosely fitting,” Fish said.

“There’s an opportunity for something to come within areas where it’s not tightly fitted, through your nose or neck.”

The major advantage of surgical masks, however, is that they prevent large droplets from coming in contact with parts of the face, Fish said.

Health officials have said the coronavirus is 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,” she noted.


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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.

More than masks, Fish said it’s more important for people to remember common hygiene practices — the same ones that prevent the spread of the regular flu.

Some useful tips include keeping your hands away from your nose and mouth, washing hands regularly, and coughing or sneezing into your elbow.

“The best thing is to stay away from somebody who is sick,” she said, noting those who are sick with viruses should also keep a low profile.

Priyanka Mishra, an immunology researcher at Simon Fraser University, agreed that surgical masks can help, but said they come with limitations.

“It will definitely give you protection, but the viruses are very tiny particles and they can move through the mask,” she explained.

Mishra added mask users should follow proper hygiene, such as changing the masks regularly and disposing of them in the right way.

“You keep it attached to your mouth and respiratory system,” she said, noting masks can get contaminated, especially in cases where viruses are around.

For members of the public who choose to wear the masks, Mishra said N95 is likely not suitable.

“It’s not recommended for the general public. They’re made for medical staff,” she said.


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Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, cautioned of the risks of wearing a mask during a media briefing Thursday.

“Wearing masks when you’re well is not an effective measure. Sometimes it can actually present some risks, as you’re putting your fingers up and down on your face, removing your mask, putting them next to your eyes,” she said.

Tam said masks are more useful for people who are “actually sick.”

“There’s not recommendation to wear a mask when you’re going about your daily activities.”

The World Health Organization recommends that those who are suspected of being infected with coronavirus, their family members and other visitors, take precautions such as wearing medical masks, properly covering their nose and mouth while sneezing or coughing, and washing their hands.

The organization said Thursday that it is too soon to declare a global health emergency because of the disease, which has infected at least 500 people in China. However, that hasn’t stopped other countries, including Canada, from taking precautions.

The Canadian Border Services Agency announced Wednesday that it would implement health screening for all international arrivals at major airports in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver.

There are no direct flights from Wuhan to Canada, officials noted, but it is possible travellers would have stopped over in the city.

Fish said it’s not necessary for people living in Canada, where there are no confirmed cases of the illness, to take precautions such as wearing masks. But she noted that it is a personal choice individuals may choose to make.

“I think people should be warned about being too scared about all this,” Fish noted.

“In Canada, we haven’t got any cases and if there were to be cases, we’re extremely well-prepared following the SARs experience. We’ve got all kinds of procedures and protocols in place.”

Health Minister Patty Hajdu said on Thursday that several people in Canada are under observation for signs they may have contracted the illness, but that the risk to Canadians remains low.

— With files from Global News reporters Sean Boynton, Emily Lazatin and The Canadian Press

© 2020 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.

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