What you should know about face coverings

These days, it’s common to see people wearing face masks (or face coverings) in public places. How can this protective measure be made more effective?

Wearing a face mask (or face covering) in the community

Adequate handwashing, coughing or sneezing in the crook of the arm, avoiding bringing the hands to the face, and practising physical distancing are some of the well-known measures to limit the spread of the coronavirus. These measures are happening in our daily lives, which is a good thing. Is wearing a face mask/face covering in the community an effective protective measure against COVID-19? That’s an interesting, and above all, important question.

It should be noted that there is still a lot of uncertainty about the coronavirus and the infection is causes: COVID-19. Thousands of healthcare professionals and scientists around the world are working tirelessly to learn everything they can about the virus and the illness, particularly how it spreads and how it can be avoided. Therefore, the information found in this text is based on the knowledge and recommendations shared to date by public health authorities.

For whom and why?

Based on the data currently available, a fairly high proportion of people infected with coronavirus have no signs or symptoms and are therefore unaware that they have it. Additionally, it would appear that, for those who do display symptoms of the infection, the period of contagion begins before the onset of signs and symptoms. This is why it is preferable to wear a face mask or face covering as a protection measure, even for people who don’t display any symptoms of COVID-19.

It is still unclear at this time what the real benefits are of wearing a medical mask (sometimes called a procedural or surgical mask). This is even a matter for debate in the scientific community, given the lack of reliable data and the variability of study results available to date. What we do know is that wearing a medical mask requires several precautions and that people who are less accustomed or trained often do not use them optimally (for instance, they bring their hands to their face to put it back into place or to adjust it, they place it under their nose, etc.). Therefore, the use of medical masks is reserved to health workers and other essential care providers, such as first respondents.    

As for cloth or “home-made” face coverings, the mystery surrounding their effectiveness is even greater. What is currently believed is that the use of a face mask would mainly protect others, not the person wearing it, by limiting the projection of infected droplets into the air if they cough or sneeze. Initial studies suggest that the virus is not transmitted by air, but rather by contact with droplets from respiratory secretions. In other words, to contract the virus, you have to be close enough to an infected person for droplets projected through coughing or sneezing to reach your face or hands. The rationale for wearing a face covering is to prevent the projection of droplets. It is also the reason why so much emphasis is placed on the importance of physical distancing.

As a result, in early April, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) issued a recommendation for Canadians to wear face coverings during outings or movements to public places, particularly when physical distancing is difficult to follow (i.e., public transit).

How to optimally wear a face mask

First, it should be emphasized that wearing a face mask or face covering should not prevent or deter a person from applying the other recommended preventive measures. This is an additional measure that must not replace other proven methods, such as handwashing and physical distancing. The danger of wearing a face covering is that it gives the people wearing it and those around them a false sense of security. Do not fall into this trap, and continue to rigorously apply the measures set out by PHAC.

Here are some additional tips to make wearing a face covering more effective and to help better protect you.

  • Choose a face covering that stays in place to avoid having to constantly adjust it. Some of them tie at the back of the head rather than behind the ears, which can help.
  • Wash your hands before and after you put it on.
  • Make sure it always covers your nose and your mouth. It must fit snugly to the face. Otherwise, it is pointless to wear one.
  • Avoid touching it, as well as the other areas of the face that are not covered (like the eyes).
  • Change it if it is soiled, moist or damaged.
  • Never share it with another person.
  • Once it has been used, throw it away, unless it is reusable (if so, it must be washed in the washing machine with hot water after each use).
  • In social situations, always keep a minimum two-metre distance from the people around you, whether you are wearing a mask or not.
  • If it isn’t necessary to go out, stay at home. This is undoubtedly the most effective way to avoid any contamination. If you are ill, avoid going out, unless you are going somewhere to receive treatment.

Speak to your pharmacist for additional information about the prevention of infections.

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What you should know about face coverings

These days, it’s common to see people wearing face masks (or face coverings) in public places. How can this protective measure be made more effective?
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