COVID-19: For Most, Masks Give Little to No Protection
Videos and photos of people in public wearing surgical masks or bandanas over their nose and mouth are flooding social media and news reports.
But are masks really effective in protecting the general public from COVID-19?
"Masks are almost never useful for the general public," Ben-Aderet said. "When trying to protect yourself from getting a communicable illness in a public setting, masks have almost no role in that for healthy people. There are very few scenarios in public where people should be wearing masks."
One of those exceptions is if someone has a cough, fever or respiratory illness and must venture out of their home to visit their healthcare provider or to pick up medicines. Then a mask may do a better job of preventing the mask-wearer from spreading their illness, but it doesn't block other people's germs from penetrating the mask, Ben-Aderet said.
"Masks do a really good job of keep secretions in. So when you're at your doctor's office, they may ask you to wear a mask if you have an active cough," Ben-Aderet said. "Masks do a much worse job of keeping infections from coming in from the outside, which is why your typical surgical mask provides almost no protection from highly communicable diseases in a public setting."
Then why do healthcare workers wear masks?
"Healthcare providers use masks when they're actively caring for highly ill patients or doing procedures on patients," Ben-Aderet said. "There may be splashing of infectious fluids into their mucous membranes. Masks help protect healthcare providers from a close encounter with a person who's ill. In a public setting, in a restaurant or in an airport, regular people aren't doing those tasks and so they're not being exposed to the same level that a healthcare worker is."
If masks offer little protection in public settings, then what can people do to protect themselves?
"Masks play much less of a role than other infection control considerations, like handwashing," Ben-Aderet said. "Wash your hands often, don't touch your face, and sneeze or cough into your elbow or tissue. And then make sure you wash your hands again."