'Wearing a mask can give a false sense of security': What the experts say about wearing face masks

Mixed messaging around face masks has been at the forefront of the COVID-19 pandemic as Canadians try to arm themselves with the correct personal protective equipment when venturing out of the house.

Global perspectives on the use of masks in public are divisive. While some countries like the Czech Republic urge they’ve been able to slow growth of coronavirus by making masks mandatory for every person leaving their home, hospitals in Toronto are facing a shortage and have begun to solicit them from the general public. Hospitals in Vancouver and Ottawa have told staff to limit themselves to two surgical masks per shift.

Meanwhile, Michael Garron Hospital in Toronto’s east-end went as far as telling volunteers to sew masks for the general public.

Right now, Canadians are being asked by their federal and provincial governments to only go out when in need of essential services, to work (if they’re required), or to the doctor. However, many aren’t sure if they need to gear up with a mask when they leave the house.

Despite the rumours, both the Centre for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization have been clear on their messaging — unless you’re symptomatic, you do not need to wear a mask.

The website for the Public Health Agency of Canada also states “the use of a mask is not recommended for preventing the spread of COVID-19.”

Dr. Bonita Bodani specializes in pediatrics in Regina and Toronto and believes that while masks may provide some protection, in some cases, they can do the opposite.

“Wearing a mask can give a false sense of security and actually increase your risk of contracting the virus if not used and disposed of properly or not replaced frequently,” she said.

When masks become damp, Canadians should remove them and dispose of them immediately.

The only time Canadians are advised to wear a mask out in public is when they’re experiencing symptoms such as a dry cough, fever, difficulty breathing or pneumonia in either lung. With someone who’s ill, a mask can reduce spread.

“The mask acts as a barrier and helps stop the tiny droplets from spreading when you cough or sneeze,” messaging on the site reads.

The virus can also be airborne and remain dormant on inanimate objects for a large period of time.

Dr. Bonita Bodani says Canadians can opt to put on a face mask when they know they'll be in close proximity with others when accessing essential services, but recommends good hygiene practices as the best solution.
Dr. Bonita Bodani says Canadians can opt to put on a face mask when they know they'll be in close proximity with others when accessing essential services, but recommends good hygiene practices as the best solution.

Dr. Bodani also recommends that if you’re forced to come in close-proximity to others, where you can’t adhere to the two metre or six feet recommendation, a mask is recommended.

“The grocery store, other essential services or enclosed spaces, you can wear a mask to provide some protection of possible transmission to yourself,” she said.

How to wear a mask properly

First things first, before putting on a mask, you will need to either wash your hands with soap and water for 30 seconds or use alcohol-sanitizer.

Next, figure out which side of the mask is facing outwards (usually it’s the coloured side). Following that, place the mask over the bridge of your nose, and loop it around your ears.

Still life of a face mask on red background
Still life of a face mask on red background

After it’s secured on your ears, slightly pinch the nose and pull the bottom of the mask around and under your chin to create a seal.

It is essential that the mask covers the nose and chin to prevent aerosols from entering any openings.

After you’re done with the mask, remove it from behind your ears and avoid touching the front and dispose of it. Finally, wash your hands or use hand sanitizer.

The best way to protect yourself

Surgical masks are not a solution by themselves, and instead Dr. Bodani recommends Canadians continue to follow the WHO and the Public Health Agency of Canada’s recommendations to continue physically distancing.

“The best safety measure to protect yourself from droplet transmission is to stay at home and isolate and avoid any human interaction,” she said.

Instead of opting for masks and trying to secure sanitizer, Dr. Bodani recommends using soap and water.

“Wash your hands frequently, do not shake anyone’s hands or hug anyone. Avoid touching your face,” she said.

Dr. Bodani believes if Canadians can buy into social and physical distancing and continue to wash their hands and practice good hygiene, the use of masks will be rendered effectively minimal.

“If you practice these other safety measures, the use of masks will only provide little additional protection,” she said.