Editor's Note 22/04/20: An earlier version of this article stated that the coronavirus is not airborne. This has been changed to reflect the lack of a scientific consensus. Today, the World Health Organization still states that face masks should be worn wisely as their misuse can cause infections, and their overuse causes shortages for frontline workers.
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 worldwide.
And yet, the reason that the World Health Organization (WHO) is working hard to prevent the misinformation and panic surrounding the new coronavirus is because 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, is the widespread use of face masks that has caused a shortage of the item worldwide.
No evidence to suggest masks effectively prevent widespread infection
Though the vast majority of cases of COVID-19 — the infection caused by the new coronavirus — are reported in China, at the time of writing, 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 won't help to combat the number of infections, and might even hinder efforts, is the widespread use of different types of face masks that are, wrongly, believed to be highly effective at preventing the transmission of the virus throughout communities.
As infection specialist Eli Perencevich, MD, a professor of medicine and epidemiology at the University of Iowa’s College of Medicine, told Forbes, the vast majority of people should not wear a face mask, even if there are cases of the coronavirus in their communities.
Why's that? In short, there is no watertight 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 within a community.
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. However, 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, medical workers are trained to use "N95 masks" effectively. They are taught how to correctly place the airtight masks on their faces and how to dispose of the masks without being infected by the contaminants that are accumulated in the mask's filter. The majority of the public, of course, do not have this training.
Perhaps the most important reason the majority of the public is advised not to wear masks, as Dr. Perencevich points out, is that taking off and putting on any kind of mask leads a person to touch their face several times a day. 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 as the public is met with an onslaught of pictures in the media of people wearing masks.
Sadly, some sellers 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, however, is that there is no scientific consensus on whether the new coronavirus is airborne or not. Despite what many believe, there is no clear 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.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
The incorrect belief that masks are effective at preventing infection has caused several experts to raise their concerns, including the U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams, MD, who focused on the fact shortages put healthcare and frontline workers 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 come in close proximity to the infected individual. They are also advised to inform themselves how to use a 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, simply, by washing one's hands often and trying to not touch your face.
As Karen Fleming, Ph.D., a professor in biophysics at Johns Hopkins University explained in a detailed Twitter thread, 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.”
Though advice on hygiene might seem mundane, Fleming says, soap can be a real lifesaver when it comes to preventing infection by COVID-19.