It's normal to be scared in the face of a new virus that we know relatively little about and which is raising alarms throughout communities as it spreads globally.
However, the very reason that the World Health Organization (WHO) is working hard to prevent the misinformation and panic surrounding the Wuhan coronavirus is that people often do counterintuitive and even harmful things when they panic.
One such example according to several health experts, including infection prevention specialist Eli Perencevich, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine, is the widespread use of face masks that has caused a shortage of the items worldwide.
No evidence to suggest masks effectively prevent infection
Though the vast majority of cases of COVID-19 — the infection caused by the Wuhan coronavirus — are reported in China, the WHO has officially called the coronavirus a global health emergency. Recent surges in infections in Italy, South Korea, and Iran, have led world organizations to say the risk is high — though containment might still be possible.
One thing that likely won't help to combat the number of infections, and might even hinder efforts, is the widespread use of different types of face masks to prevent transmission of the virus from one person to another.
As infection specialist Eli Perencevich told Forbes, even if there are cases of the coronavirus in your community, you should not be wearing a face mask.
Why's that? Firstly, there is no actual scientific evidence to support the belief that face masks of any kind — including surgical masks and respirators such as the “N95 mask” — are effective at preventing infection of the coronavirus.
But there's more to it than that.
Masks might actually increase your chances of being infected
“The average healthy person does not need to have a mask, and they shouldn’t be wearing masks,” Dr. Perencevich said. “There’s no evidence that wearing masks on healthy people will protect them. They wear them incorrectly, and they can increase the risk of infection because they’re touching their face more often.”
Firstly, the vast majority of people are buying surgical masks. These are designed to stop sick people from infecting others, they do not keep droplets out.
The "N95 mask" does keep germs out for wearers, though not with a one hundred percent efficiency. As Dr. Perencevich explains, even a mask that is somewhat effective can cause a false sense of security for users leading them to forget to wash their hands often and stop touching their face — the much more effective prevention method.
What's more, to use an "N95 mask" effectively medical workers receive training in order to know how to correctly place the airtight masks on their faces. The majority of the public do not have this training.
Finally, perhaps the most important reason the majority of the public is advised not to wear masks is that taking off and putting on a mask leads people to touch their face. This is the most likely way someone will be infected.
Widely held beliefs are based on misinformation
People are mainly buying face masks due to a lack of accurate knowledge about the transmission of the coronavirus. The hysteria is also clearly pushing demand with people following the crowd and seeing a huge amount of pictures in the media with people wearing masks.
Sadly, some companies are also inevitably taking advantage of the situation and are making a profit out of the widespread paranoia by selling masks online.
One very important factor is that the Wuhan coronavirus is not airborne. Despite what many wrongly believe, there is no evidence that the coronavirus can be breathed in when an infected individual nearby exhales. Instead, COVID-19 is most likely transmitted via droplets, which are often spread on surfaces and people's hands.
The incorrect belief that masks are effective at preventing infection has caused several experts to tweet their concerns, including the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, who focused on the fact shortages put healthcare providers at risk.
Should anyone wear a mask?
“The one time you would want a mask is if you’re sick and you have to leave the house,” Dr. Perencevich told Forbes. “If you have the flu or think you have COVID, that’s when you’d put on a mask to protect others. In your house, if you feel like you’re sick, you should wear a mask to protect your family members.”
Those who have infected family members are also advised to wear masks when they have to be in close proximity to the infected individual. Though they are also advised to inform themselves how to use the mask properly and how to dispose of it correctly — all of that information can be found in this detailed post by the WHO.
What is the most effective way to prevent infection?
The fact that the coronavirus seems to be spread via droplets and is not airborne means that the best way to prevent it is by washing one's hands and trying to not touch your face.
As Karen Fleming, Ph.D., a professor in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University explained in a PSA for non-science folks: Wonder why everyone is emphasizing hand washing? Sounds banal, but soap really IS an amazing weapon that we all have in our homes. This is because coronavirus is an "enveloped" virus, which means that it has an outer lipid membrane layer.
, COVID-19 is "an ‘enveloped’ virus, which means that it has an outer lipid membrane layer," and “washing your hands with soap and water has the ability to ‘dissolve’ this greasy fatty layer and kill the virus.”
PSA for non-science folks: Wonder why everyone is emphasizing hand washing? Sounds banal, but soap really IS an amazing weapon that we all have in our homes. This is because coronavirus is an "enveloped" virus, which means that it has an outer lipid membrane layer.