March 03, 2020 at 01:30AM by CWC
From celebrities on social media to the person sitting next to you on the subway, there are a lot of people donning face masks amid the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, sent a tweet over the weekend urging people to stop buying masks, noting that it makes it harder for health professionals to get masks and that masks won’t prevent the general public from contracting the illness. Leave aside the tone of the tweet. People are generally confused as to whether face masks are effective against viruses, so I asked Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center for more clarification.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
“One of the concerns for people wearing masks is that masks may offer people a false sense of security that isn’t really there, especially if they’re not being worn correctly,” says Dr. Buhr. “If you’re spending all day adjusting your mask and touching your face, you’re more likely to inoculate yourself with a virus just from touching stuff around you and then touching your face.”
Dr. Buhr, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, explains that surgical masks are designed to protect patients from health care workers.
“We wear [masks] during surgery, so that we don’t accidentally spit on a patient’s open body,” he says. “Masks don’t really do much to protect healthcare workers, or other people, from viruses because there isn’t really adequate filtration in the surgical mask to actually do a whole lot about filtering stuff out of the air.”
Consumers have rushed to buy masks online, which has led to price gouging and low supply for those who actually need one, such as health-care professionals helping high-risk patients. The average person doesn’t have the training to wear a mask correctly nor the need.
“[Health-care workers] all have to do specific training and testing to demonstrate the appropriate fit, and how to correctly wear, put on, and take off these masks,” he says. “The general public are not trained and not fit tested to make sure that they have the appropriately sized or shaped mask for their face.”
Generally speaking, he says the average population risk of contracting COVID-19 is pretty low. However, to protect ourselves, we should continue to take common precautions during cold and flu season, like trying to stay home and self-isolate when we’re not feeling well, and washing our hands frequently, especially before and after we eat.
The CDC says face masks should only be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19, health-care workers, and caretakers either at-home or in a health-care facility. Dr. Buhr adds that if you or those close to you should be wearing a mask, your doctor will let you know.