Health & Health Care

Slowing COVID-19: To Mask or Not to Mask

non-medical face mask

Note: As the body of knowledge regarding COVID-19 is evolving rapidly, please refer to the World Health Organization or your local public health agencies for the most up-to-date information.


Why is everybody talking about non-medical masks in the last few days?  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in the US released studies showing that the coronavirus was being transmitted by patients who were asymptomatic.  It was known all along that some people were infected but asymptomatic, but new information indicates that they are more likely to spread the virus than previously thought.

Because of this new information, the CDC recommends “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

The CDC adds that “It is critical to emphasize that maintaining 6-feet social distancing remains important to slow the spread of the virus.  CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.”

The CDC offers advice on how to make a mask here.

The Government of Canada takes a different stance than the CDC.  “Wearing a non-medical mask (for example a homemade cloth mask) in the community has not been proven to protect the person wearing it. Strict hygiene and public health measures, including frequent hand washing and physical (social) distancing, will reduce your chance of being exposed to the virus.  Wearing a non-medical mask is an additional measure you can take to protect others around you.”  They compare wearing a non-medical mask to coughing into your elbow or using a tissue when you cough – something that protects others from your germs.

The World Health Organization’s public advice on wearing masks states that:

  • “If you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV 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 rub or soap and water.
  • If you wear a mask, then you must know how to use it and dispose of it properly.”

The same WHO page has a video on how to safely put on and remove a mask.  The underlying principle with any personal protective equipment (PPE), including masks and gloves, is that as soon as you’ve got it on, you need to treat the outer surface as potentially contaminated.

The Government of Canada and the CDC make it very clear that surgical masks and N95 respirators should not be used by the general public, and need to be reserved for use by first responders who are working in close proximity to patients with COVID-19 and are likely to be exposed to their respiratory secretions.


So, in a nutshell?  Wearing a non-medical mask has not been proven to protect the wearer from infection, and there are a couple of risks that go along with mask-wearing – the risk of actually getting infected from your mask, but more importantly, the risk that people will get lulled into a sense of security and not practice proper hand hygiene and social distancing.

If you wear a non-medical mask in this context, you are protecting other people from you, not yourself from others.  As long as people are totally clear on that, go ahead and mask if you choose.



There’s more on pubic health in the Science Corner.

58 thoughts on “Slowing COVID-19: To Mask or Not to Mask”

          1. It seems like they are available. E.g. in UK:

            “The third pillar is antibody tests, which are designed to detect if people have had the virus and are now immune. These could potentially be done at home with a finger prick and deliver results in as little as twenty minutes. We are currently working with several companies who are offering these tests and are evaluating their effectiveness.”


            1. Pressed enter too soon sorry!


              “None of the antibody tests ordered by the government is good enough to use, the new testing chief has admitted.

              John Newton said that tests ordered from China were able to identify immunity accurately only in people who had been severely ill and that Britain was no longer hoping to buy millions of kits off the shelf.”

              Wow, crazy!

  1. Maybe we split the difference and just make the ugly people wear them? I have a couple in my car but haven’t felt the need to use them yet. It reminds me of high school. I look and feel like a dork wearing it, and since I live so close to the Canadian border, I’ll just go with their recommendations.

  2. When I got the N95 mask fitting, I asked to take that mask home with me. The guy looked at me funny as if I was on something…. I bet he’s not laughing now!

    I have maybe 2 basic masks plus the N95 mask which I haven’t used, but I keep them just in case. Right now, I don’t wear a mask when I leave the house. I’m more concerned about my husband potentially bringing home the virus. He’s considered an “essential worker.”

  3. It baffles me how the people wearing masks seem to think it protects them from others. I’ve seen people wearing bandanas over their faces too, which is kinda scary considering that gangs do that too.

  4. My family members have been wearing masks. We’re not wearing them because we believe it will make us immune to catching anything, we’re wearing them because… if we do then less germs have a potential to be spread. Whether we’re sick or not, it does make the grocery store workers feel more at ease.

    It was actually on recommendation from the doctor who was doing my mother’s remission check-in appointments. When she had to cancel all of her non-essential patients for the next three months, she gave the advice to all of her patients to wear masks.

    My mother is a seamstress. She worked in an alterations shop for many years. So she’s actually been sewing us masks. We wear them out and then come in the back basement door and throw them in the washing machine that’s just inside the basement door. It’s been working well so far.

    Is it necessary? Not totally. But does it hurt? No. It’s a small step to let others around you know that you care about their health too. At least that’s the way I see it.

  5. I do it now the few times I go out only because the US govt has said we should. I know it’s pointless but I don’t want to get dirty looks. I made one out of an animal print scarf, which is the wrong fabric ~ thin & silky & not breathable. I’ve also ordered a couple cotton ones. Idk when they’ll arrive 🙄

  6. Our government gave us all reusable cloth masks and switched their stance. So now I wear them when out…but not everyone does. The lack of clarity is frustrating. I’m worried about me somehow becoming a pre-symptomatic / asymptomatic carrier thats why I wear mine.

      1. I think it’s a good move – makes sure no one goes without and those who have better can always give away the free ones to others who need it more 🙂

  7. It’s becoming a real hot potato here.
    I have just been writing a post an the subject of PPE, because I realized that people shopping at the supermarket had more PPE on than we do at work.
    I have to wear face mask, gloves etc all day (it’s all a bit yuck) and I can’t wait to get them off at the end of the day. If the government directed us to wear PPE outside of the house to go shopping etc, of course I would. But at the moment I am so relieved to escape at the end of each day.

  8. Here we were given the information that you provided. Masks are not frequently wore here. There is a shortage and people make them for first responders. Occasionally I’ve seen someone wearing a mask on the street or into a shop. I’ve also seen people wearing plastic gloves into the store. It makes me sad for nature as all that plastic is being used and thrown away. I go unmasked but with great distance through life here! Informative post!

      1. Me too but I’ve noticed today other people not so much, since our PM has said that the figures are looking ‘well’. 🙄😮
        We’ll see what they will say next, I hope they keep the measurements in place as long as needed. Now it’s till the 19th of April and possibly till the 3th of May.

        1. Here there seems to be pretty clear messaging from government and public health that easing off on restrictions too soon would be the wrong way to go.

          1. I fully agree! I hope they will see that too here but the thing is that they evaluate every two weeks. The hopeful results was that for the first time there were more people discharged than admitted to hospital. I guess there will be a speech next Wednesday.

  9. My mother spent the last week sewing flannel face masks despite my repeated protestations that they accomplish nothing. Not only that, she made them out of the ugliest fabric available. I would literally rather die than wear one. Lol

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