Explainer: When and how to wear face mask due to virus

Tuesday March 24 2020
Mask

A staff uses hand disinfectant at the Infectious Disease Unit of Kenyatta National Hospital in Nairobi on March 15, 2020 following confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus. PHOTO | YASUYOSHI CHIBA | AFP

By SARAH NANJALA

Face masks have become a common feature on the streets of countries hit by the coronavirus (Covid-19) pandemic.

With Kenya having three confirmed cases so far, many may be wondering if not wearing one leaves them exposed.

But are these masks meant for everyone? When should you buy and wear one? How should it be worn and how do they work anyway?

Here is what you need to know:

•Who should use a face mask?

While face masks prevent Covid-19 infections, the World Health Organisation (WHO) says you should only wear one if you are ill or if looking after a person with the virus. 

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Disposable face masks can only be used once. The WHO notes that if you are not ill or taking care of a patient, you are wasting a mask, worsening the current global shortage.

“The most effective ways to protect yourself and others against Covid-19 are to frequently clean your hands, cover your cough with the bend of the elbow or tissue and maintain a distance of at least one meter from people who are coughing or sneezing,” the WHO says in its precautionary statement on the virus.

In the event that you do wear a mask, ones made of paper are not recommended as they are ill-fitting and the little protection they might initially provide soon expires.

In addition, they quickly become moist inside, providing the perfect environment for germs to thrive.

They also become a hazard for others if carelessly disposed of.

Health officials globally note that there is no reliable scientific evidence to suggest that face masks, including surgical ones, work at scale, with experts noting that they may cause significant unforeseen harm.

Here is what the WHO advises on persons who should wear a mask:

  • If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with a suspected Covid-19 infection.

  • Wear a mask if you are coughing or sneezing.

  • Masks are effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rubs or soap and water.

  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.

Other people who need to wear a mask include suspected cases, confirmed cases, health care workers such as doctors and nurses, pathology specimen collectors and airline passengers and staff.

People with low immunity should wear the mask as it acts as an additional preventive measure.

However, other measures such as frequent hand washing and avoiding social interactions should also be adhered to.

The mask should not be viewed as a definite preventive measure as its effectiveness is dependent on other rules as well as handwashing.

•What is wrong with using face masks?

According to Public Health England, the use of masks could encourage spread of the virus as people tend to touch their faces more while wearing one, hence increasing their chances of picking up the virus.

Similarly, people also wear the masks for longer periods than intended, causing them to become moist, unsanitary and an ideal environment for germs and viruses to breed.

Additionally, there is the risk that face masks may distract people from enforcing other more ideal methods to prevent infection such as frequent hand washing.

It is important to note that wearing a face mask does not mean you are fully protected from the coronavirus.

Viruses such as the Covid-19 can also enter the human body through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks.

This means they will probably make little difference if you’re just walking around town or taking a bus.

However, masks are not completely useless as they are very effective at capturing droplets, one of the main transmission routes of the coronavirus.

Some studies show that face masks roughly provide fivefold protection against the virus.

Therefore, if you are likely to be in close contact with an infected person, a mask will cut your chances of getting infected.

This makes masks essential for patients, their families, health and social care workers.

•How should you wear and dispose of a face mask?

The WHO provides the following guidelines on how to use a face mask:

  • Remember, a mask should only be used by health workers, care takers and individuals with respiratory symptoms such as fever and cough.

  • Before touching the mask, clean hands with an alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

  • Take the mask and inspect it for tears or holes.

  • Orient which side is the top (where the metal strip is).

  • Ensure the proper side of the mask faces outwards (the coloured side).

  • Place the mask on your face. Pinch the metal strip or stiff edge off the mask so it moulds to the shape of your nose.

  • Pull down the mask’s bottom so it covers your mouth and your chin.

  • Cover the mouth and nose with the mask and make sure there are no gaps between your face and the mask.

  • Avoid touching the mask while using it. If you do, clean your hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

  • After use, take off the mask; remove the elastic loops from behind the ears while keeping the mask away from your face and clothes, to avoid touching potentially contaminated surfaces of the mask.

  • To remove the mask, remove it from behind (do not touch the front of mask); discard immediately in a closed bin; clean hands with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water.

  • Discard the mask in a closed bin immediately after use.

  • Perform hand hygiene after touching or discarding the mask. Use alcohol-based hand rub or, if visibly soiled, wash your hands with soap and water.

  • Replace the mask with a new one as soon as it is damp and do not re-use single-use masks.

•What masks can prevent the virus?

There are highly specialised masks that can prevent the virus but they are very expensive and only work effectively if used under certain protocols.

As face masks fit more loosely, N95 respirators are the most ideal as they fit more tightly and prevent the wearer from inhaling smaller, airborne infectious particles.

These masks are, however, not recommended for use by the general public as health workers need them more.

Surgical masks are only helpful in preventing people who have coronavirus from spreading it to others.

If you are well, you do not need to wear a surgical mask as there is little evidence supporting the widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people to prevent transmission in public.

However, if you decide to use a face mask, ensure you follow the above steps and use them sparingly so that those in the heath sector are not affected by shortages.