The World Health Organisation has issued a new advisory that says that the use of face masks, while helping to limit the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic, is not enough on its own to provide “an adequate level of protection”. Instead, the global health body advises that other measures such as hand hygiene and social distancing are adopted alongside face masks, if necessary.
While the use of medical masks can prevent the spread of droplets from an infected individual to someone else, WHO maintains that there is “limited evidence” on whether healthy individuals wearing face masks in crowded areas (or among infected patients) may be beneficial. In a wider setting, there is “no evidence” to suggest that face masks will prevent infection for healthy individuals.
“There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19.”
Masks should be reserved for healthcare personnel
Also in the advisory is the recommendation that medical masks be reserved for front-liners such as healthcare workers. While those who display symptoms of the coronavirus should still wear a medical mask (amongst other preventive measures), face masks can create a “false sense of security” for the public, which may indirectly cause individuals to neglect other measures such as social distancing and washing their hands adequately.
Instead, “decision-makers” in various regions are advised to consider what the purpose of the face masks is for healthy individuals, raising potential issues that could be caused by face masks. These include self-contamination, breathing difficulties, and crucially, the use of a limited resource that is vital to healthcare workers.
“Whatever approach is taken, it is important to develop a strong communication strategy to explain to the population the circumstances, criteria, and reasons for decisions. The population should receive clear instructions on what masks to wear, when and how (see mask management section), and on the importance of continuing to strictly follow all other IPC measures (e.g., hand hygiene, physical distancing, and others).”
The advice appears to contradict a recent statement by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that advised those in the U.S. to wear homemade cloth face masks in settings where social distancing measures are difficult to implement (such as supermarkets, pharmacies).
It must be noted that WHO’s statement doesn’t mean that face masks aren’t useful to curb the spread of COVID-19. Instead, the main message here is that face masks, on their own, are not enough to prevent infection, and that there has been no evidence at the time of writing that proves that face masks will protect healthy individuals in a “wider community setting” from COVID-19.
As such, it’s important to remember to practise social distancing measures and proper hand hygiene, in addition to wearing a face mask if you are displaying any symptoms. There are two routes of transmission, according to WHO: respiratory droplets and contact.