Official News Magazine of the Canadian Snowbird Association
The Barrier Effect
If you’re confused about masks and gloves, you’re in good company. Since the topic first entered the public consciousness in March 2020, advice has mutated just about every week. That said, a consensus seems to be building, which makes this a good time to provide an update. In addition to reviewing the evidence and recommendations, we’ve talked to five infectious disease specialists to clarify the fine points.
Why were face masks not recommended at the start of the pandemic?
Early on in the year, experts didn’t know that people who had caught the virus without knowing it could transmit it to others, so there wasn’t a compelling reason to ask people with no symptoms to wear masks.
What is the current “official” position on mask use?
On May 20, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam upgraded her guidance on mask use from “permissive” to “specific recommendation.” Her new advice was to wear non-medical face masks when it is difficult to maintain a two-metre distance from others, such as in grocery stores. The World Health Organization (WHO) supports the use of masks, but does not take a hard-line position and cautions that masks alone do not offer sufficient protection.
What materials are suitable for a mask?
While disposable surgical or medical masks provide the best filtration, a brand-new study concluded that cloth masks help reduce viral transmission if widely used. “Look for a durable material with a reasonable ability to withstand some moisture,” says Dr. Abdu Sharkawy, an assistant professor of medicine at the Toronto Western Hospital, who gives top marks to antimicrobial cotton. Bandannas, T-shirts or even bedsheets will also do the trick, as long as the fabric has a fairly tight weave and can handle some rough-and-tumble in the washing machine. At the same time, you need to strike a balance between filtration and breathability. Ideally, the mask should have more than one layer of fabric.
There’s no point in wearing a mask unless you do it right. Here is the proper technique:
Do I need to wear a mask outdoors?
It depends. “If everyone were to maintain proper physical distancing at all times, the added value of wearing cloth masks would be very low,” says Dr. Matthew Oughton, director of the infectious diseases training program at McGill University Health Centre. And there’s no need to wear a mask if you’re engaged in a solo activity such as gardening in your own backyard, far from other humans. However, you should keep your mask handy for scenarios that could thrust you too close to others − think bus stop or bakery lineup.
Remember that wearing a mask offers a two-way benefit. “It protects you from acquiring the virus and protects other people from catching viruses which you may be harbouring without knowing it,” says Dr. Yves Longtin, chair of infection control at Montreal’s Jewish General Hospital, noting that “half of people with COVID-19 present no symptoms.” And the more people do it, the greater the benefit to all.
What about on hot summer days?
With Canada’s all-too-short summer season underway, you may wonder how you’ll get through the hottest months behind a mask. Given that sun and humidity can inactivate the virus and warm weather makes social distancing easier, Dr. Sharkawy says that it’s OK to mask up “only in enclosed areas such as offices or shops” during the summer. A word of warning: the summer heat and humidity can cause your mask to get wet, and “wet masks don’t work as efficiently,” says Dr. Oughton. If this happens, whether from sweat or from rain, “exchange the mask for a clean and dry one as soon as possible.”
…or in the car?
If other people are in the car with you, wearing a mask makes sense − especially if you’re feeling at all sick. When you’re driving alone, however, wearing a mask could create other risks, such as reducing your field of vision.
How often should I wash my masks?
Dr. Oughton recommends a daily schedule − more often, if the mask gets soiled. You can wash by hand with soap and water or put it in the washing machine with the rest of your laundry. It’s a good idea to have several masks on hand, so that you can grab a clean one when you need it − and match your fashion statement to your mood.
Any advice for people who find masks highly uncomfortable?
Give it time, says Dr. Longtin. “It’s a bit like when you start wearing glasses. At first you really notice them but, after a while, you forget that you’re even wearing them.” While he strongly recommends pushing through the discomfort, he offers “staying more than two metres away from other people” as an alternative.
Should some people not wear masks?
You can probably wear a mask if you have a respiratory condition, such as asthma or COPD, though you should “only use it for brief periods to avoid becoming short of breath,” says Dr. Sharkawy. “The more severe the condition, the shorter the period and, if you require oxygen, you shouldn’t use a mask at all.” Masks are also discouraged for very young children, who would probably end up fiddling with them and thus defeat their purpose.
Should gloves get the love − or the boot?
If you look around in a store, you may see some people wearing disposable gloves while shopping. While gloves may provide a sense of security, “they’re not recommended as protection from infections, since the surface of the gloves can become just as contaminated as your hands,” says Dr. Keith Warriner, a professor in the department of food science at the University of Guelph. What’s more, wearing gloves could lead you to cut corners on hand hygiene. Even if you do choose to wear gloves, Public Health Ontario scientist Dr. Jeff Kwong warns that, “you still have to wash your hands after taking them off.” Bottom line: Wash or sanitize those hands. A lot.
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