Will face masks and gloves protect you from coronavirus?

·4-min read

Masks and gloves are seen by many as precautionary measures against contracting the coronavirus, but a health expert has warned the personal protective equipment (PPE) may actually increase the likelihood of infection.

Virologist Professor Ian Mackay, from the University of Queensland, has spent over 30 years designing tests to identify viruses like COVID-19 and he has explained the unexpected dangers people could risk falling into if they wore these items that are meant to ward off disease.

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Should everyone wear a mask?

Two women wearing face masks at Sydney's Circular Quay. Professor Ian Mackay cautions masks might be doing more harm than good to the general public.
While wearing masks are a necessity for healthcare workers, Professor Ian Mackay cautions masks might be doing more harm than good to the general public. Source: Saeed KHAN/AFP via Getty Images

While wearing masks are a necessity for healthcare workers, Prof Mackay cautions masks might be doing more harm than good to the general public.

“There is some likelihood it will reduce transmission. We just don’t really have a good idea if it will reduce it enough to make a difference or whether it might even increase risk of people getting infected,” he told Yahoo News Australia’s Brianne Tolj in a live Q&A about COVID-19 on Thursday night.

Prof Mackay said that if you’re infected with a virus, a basic cloth mask will reduce the risk of producing the virus and infecting other people, but only by about 10 per cent.

The real concern is that most people aren’t trained to use masks correctly.

“What we don’t know really is whether people are used to wearing masks and won’t touch the mask on their face and then rub their eyes, or touch other surfaces and spread the virus,” Prof Mackay said.

“So in fact it can increase the risk of either infecting themselves or other people.”

Gloves increase your risk of infection

Prof Mackay said there were three mistakes people would likely make while wearing gloves that can increase the risk of infection.

“People will wear gloves going to the shops and what they’ve done is add a whole new surface that will let viruses stay on it for longer than if it was just your hand by themselves, so that’s an increased risk.”

Another mistake is people assuming a pair of gloves will protect them at all costs when they can actually increase the chance that other people will become sick, Prof Mackay says.

A person wearing gloves and using their mobile phone.
There are three mistakes people will likely make while wearing gloves that can increase the risk of infection. Source: Getty

“They will drag their hands all over the place thinking they’re safe, but they’re actually spreading potential viruses to other people,” he said.

“They then leave those gloves, in some cases, in the shopping trolley or in the car park for other people that clean up the shopping trolley to come in to contact with, and risk their health because of laziness.”

While he understands that people could see gloves as an easy way to protect yourself with minimal effort, Prof Mackay said the way medical professionals used gloves was very different to how an untrained person would.

“People would look at a glove and think, ‘That’s going to protect me’. But there are any steps in that process and without thinking it through... you can increase the risk not just for yourself, but for others.”

Masks and gloves not necessary for Australia

While other countries have benefited from the use of masks and gloves in public, Prof Mackay said they weren’t necessary for Australia and referred to the recent drop in daily national cases as an example.

“Australia has done quite well and I think the numbers really point to that, we don’t need to be adding new things that are unnecessary,” he said.

“If you do add things that you’re not familiar with whether it’s wearing masks or gloves then we may increase risk of catching it or spreading it to other people.”

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