A growing number of countries including the US are reconsidering their stance on face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic as several Asian countries insist having all residents wear them is helping in the fight against the virus’s spread.
As new research suggests that up to 50 per cent of those who have contracted the virus are asymptomatic, some experts are calling on nations to implement widespread mask usage to curtail the spread from those who don’t even know they have COVID-19.
Australia, whose advice is in line with the World Health Organisation (WHO), say people with symptoms, those caring for the sick and healthcare workers should be wearing face masks.
WHO set to debate mask usage
Yet WHO, despite repeatedly saying public use of masks was not needed, is re-evaluating its stance after new evidence was presented from Hong Kong suggesting mask usage has helped curtail the spread.
“The WHO is debating that tomorrow to understand if there is evidence that would call for a change in what WHO is recommending,” Professor David Heymann, an infectious disease expert, said in London on Wednesday (local time).
Australian research scientist at the University of San Francisco, Professor Jeremy Howard, told the Today show on Friday everyone should be wearing masks or some sort of facial protection to stop the spread of the virus from asymptomatic cases.
"There's no question about it,” he said when asked if face masks worn by the whole population works.
He pointed to Japan in their fight against the virus, saying despite having far-less stringent measures than other countries, they’ve been able to reduce the amount of deaths by the whole nation wearing masks.
“If you put a piece of cloth in front of the liquid, it doesn't go any further. That's how simple this is,” he said.
US moving towards encouraging face coverings
Amid a surging number of cases in the US spread through community transmission, President Donald Trump will move to advise almost all Americans to wear some sort of covering over their mouths when outside in the nation’s battle against the virus.
The recommendations, still being finalised on Thursday (local time), would apply at least to those who live in areas hard-hit by community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.
A person familiar with the White House coronavirus task force’s discussion said officials would suggest that non-medical masks, T-shirts or bandannas be used to cover the nose and mouth when outside the home — for instance, at the grocery store or pharmacy.
Medical-grade masks, particularly short-in-supply N95 masks, would be reserved for those dealing directly with the sick.
“I would say do it, but use a scarf if you want, you know, rather than going out and getting a mask or whatever,” Mr Trump said.
“It’s not a bad idea, at least for a period of time.”
The cases of coronavirus cases in recent days have skyrocketed to more than 238,000, more than double that of Italy as community transmission continues to rapidly grow.
European countries begin enforcing face masks for its people
And similar moves are now becoming commonplace across Europe, with Slovakia and the Czech Republic making face masks compulsory outside of the home.
In Austria, which borders Italy and has 158 deaths and more than 10,000 cases, the use of masks will soon be compulsory in supermarkets.
The UK is now weighing up similar measures.
In an online discussion with former Australian prime minister and Asia Society Policy Institute president Kevin Rudd, Dr Teo YikYing, the Dean of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, said face masks can play a part in preventing further spread.
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“It is very clear that face masks do have a certain degree of contribution in reducing the transmissibility of the virus,” he explained.
“Particularly if I’m an infected person and I have my face mask on, the aerosolisation of the virus from my speech and my activity will be signifcantly reduced.”
He said there was also “a degree of protection” provided wearing masks to prevent infection if someone is coughing or sneezing around them.”
Australia’s restrictions should be effective, expert says
However in Australia the community transmission is relatively low in comparison to its overall number of cases, with over two thirds confirmed as overseas transmission.
Associate Professor Ben Mullins at Curtin University’s School of Public Health, who is an aerosol deposition expert, told Yahoo News Australia the current social distancing should be efficient to help prevent the spread without the use of masks, which he said offer “almost zero protection”.
He did note that Asian countries may have had success with widespread usage when there has been a problem with identifying all who are infected in densely-populated areas, where social distancing was an issue.
“The one benefit of when you do let people out, and you’re having trouble maintaining the social distancing, then wearing something like this will stop any remaining infected people you haven’t tracked down and isolated [infecting others],” he said.
‘Masks not as effective as social distancing’
However he stressed face masks weren’t an effective alternative to the widespread restrictions implemented in Australia currently.
“No respirator is going to be as effective as social distancing,” he said.
However Prof Howard argues that even with the current measures in place, there is a concern asymptomatic cases are fuelling the virus’s spread and any facial coverings are essential.
“No one knows if they’re sick so if you go outside without a face mask you’re putting your community at risk which to me is not the Australian way,” he told Channel Nine’s Today show on Friday.
“The Australian way is to look after your mates not to leave your face open so people can see how beautiful you are knowing that you could be killing the people around you.”
Prof Teo said the US’s advice to provide covering with cloth as opposed to nothing was advisable however he echoed Prof Mullins’ stance that facial coverings must not be used as a substitute for measures already in place.
“I must still emphasise masks are no replacement for personal hygiene,” he said.
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