Life Wellbeing Coronavirus: Face masks explained, who does and doesn’t need one
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Coronavirus: Face masks explained, who does and doesn’t need one

Face masks
There are a lot more people sporting face masks. But most of the time, they don't work. Photo: Getty
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UPDATE: The US to consider mask recommendations

Australians are increasingly taking precautions against the coronavirus more seriously.

This is good.

However, there’s still plenty of misinformation circulating in various channels that’s creating confusion, panic, and in some cases, contributing to dangerous practices.

One of the biggest ones is masks. Go outside, and some people are wearing them. Some are not.

So what’s the right thing to do?

The advice all along, and at the time of writing, continues to be that the average healthy person does not need to wear a face mask of any kind.

The World Health Organisation reiterated that message again this week in a live conference.

“We don’t generally recommend the wearing of masks in public by otherwise well individuals because it has not up to now been associated with any particular benefit,” said Michael J. Ryan, who is the chief executive director of the WHO’s health emergencies program.

Why are masks unnecessary?

Because the virus is spread by droplets – meaning you can catch it if you’re within one metre of a person with COVID-19 and they sneeze or cough and you inhale those virus particles, or by touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face before washing your hands.

It’s not airborne. So as long as you’re social distancing and washing your hands, you’re keeping yourself pretty safe.

So who does need one?

You will be directed to wear a mask if you have to.

If you’re not a healthcare worker, or someone who’s coming into close and constant contact with a positive COVID-19 case, the only reason you should be wearing one is if you’ve got the coronavirus yourself.

There has been talk of a shortage of the recommended masks, which has prompted nasty reports of people stealing and hoarding them.

This puts at risk our health workers, who are already working under extremely tough conditions to save lives and help return our world to its normal rhythm.

Put clearly: If you are healthy, if you are not a healthcare worker, if you are not caring for someone with the coronavirus, you do not need a mask.

Wash your hands, and practise social distancing instead.

People who are unnecessarily wearing masks can, in some circumstances, put themselves at a higher risk of catching COVID-19.

Masks can lull people into a false sense of invincibility, the WHO said, causing them to skimp on proven prevention methods, like hand washing – which is one of the most effective ways of not getting COVID-19.

And if you’re wearing a mask, you’re probably adjusting it a few times per shopping trip – therefore touching your face, which we’re not meant to be doing.

What if I just whip up my own?

The DIY attitude that’s emerging around the outbreak can be truly inspiring in some cases – people are getting back to making bread and growing vegetables.

But straying into the realms of making your own hand sanitiser and face masks is not inspirational. Neither of these practices are recommended by health experts.

And we will not be providing recipes or instructions on how to make either, because that is against all the expert advice available.

Home-made masks fall into the same ‘false sense of security’ territory as just unnecessarily wearing masks, University of the Sunshine Coast nursing lecturer Matt Mason said.

Again: Home-made masks are not effective. They are potentially more dangerous than not wearing a mask at all.

Mr Mason is consulting for the WHO through a global outbreak alert and response network program.

Probably take his advice over an $1.99 crocheted mask pattern available from Etsy.

“I would recommend that people do not make their own masks. Using appropriate social distancing, staying at home if unwell, strict adherence to hand hygiene and not touching your face is more effective,” he said.

“For those promoting the use of home-made masks they need to fully consider the risks.”

La Trobe University public health lecturer Adamm Ferrier really spelt it out, saying it was a waste of time.

“Macramé, crocheted and knitted masks will no doubt appear, but will be as useful as a chocolate teapot.

“People are far better off staying away from each other and maintaining a physical separation and washing their hands frequently,” Mr Ferrier said.

Put the sewing kit down and go wash your hands.

Courtesy of NSW Department of Health