Face masks are reportedly selling out in cities across Asia as concerns over the spread of a deadly new coronavirus grow. China’s National Health Commission has deployed masks to healthcare workers responding to the outbreak, and millions of masks have been sent to residents of Wuhan, according to reports. But will these masks stop people from catching the virus?
We know the coronavirus is airborne, and that it can be transmitted between people. Researchers believe that the virus may have made the jump from animals to people via the inhalation of airborne particles in a seafood market that sold live wild animals. So it makes sense to cover your nose and mouth.
There are two main types of face masks that are being used to do that. One is a standard surgical mask – the kind worn by surgeons during operations. These masks are designed to block liquid droplets, and might lower the chance of catching the virus from another person.
But these masks don’t offer full protection against airborne viruses. For a start, they don’t fully seal off the nose and mouth – particles can still get in. And very small particles can simply pass through the material of the mask. These masks also leave the wearer’s eyes exposed – and there’s a chance the virus can infect that way. “They might help, but it’s not clear they give you total protection,” says Mark Woolhouse at the University of Edinburgh, UK.
The World Health Organization recommends that all healthcare workers treating people with the virus wear these surgical masks, along with gloves, goggles and gowns. Surgical masks are thought to be more effective in a clinical setting because they are accompanied by other protective equipment and stringent hygiene practices. The masks are also frequently replaced – surgical masks are not designed to be used more than once.
N95 respirators offer more protection. Such devices are designed to prevent 95 per cent of small particles from entering the nose and mouth area. But they only work if they fit properly, and aren’t suitable for children or people with facial hair.
N95 respirators can also make it more difficult for a person to breathe, so could be dangerous for someone showing symptoms of infection of the new coronavirus, which include coughing and shortness of breath.
Avoid large gatherings
There are other precautions people in China can take to avoid catching the virus. Local authorities are advising residents to avoid large public gatherings, for example. The Lunar New Year holiday has been prolonged to keep people off work and out of school. And practising good hand hygiene can help.
For most people outside China who haven’t been to one of the affected regions, the risk of catching the virus remains low for now. Health authorities are cautioning against travelling to the affected region, and it always makes sense to practice good hand hygiene.