Surgical Masks to Prevent Coronavirus? Not So Fast

Getting surgical masks is probably good, but let's talk about what they're actually for.

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It’s hard to escape the news of the Coronavirus, and it can be scary if you’re a worrier or a germaphobe. Even more terrifying if you have a child who is immunocompromised in some way. Viruses like the coronavirus spread by being around other people who have it, so needing to rely on the herd to make sure they’re not spreading this virus is terrifying for people. That’s likely why major retailers are reporting an increase in the general public buying surgical masks—so much that their stock is running out. It’s good that people are buying surgical masks. But surgical masks are for when you are sick, not to prevent you from getting sick. Let’s discuss.

Coronavirus originated in Wuhan, China, where the numbers say it’s already killed at least 106 people, and 4,515 more people are sick. CNN says that wearing face masks is mandatory in Wuhan, where the virus is having an epidemic. But the needed protocols there are not necessary here, half a world away in the United States.

“Right now, there’s no evidence that [wearing face masks] is going to help prevent that infection,” says infectious disease expert Dr. Charles Chiu who works as a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “I would not recommend that someone in the US who does not have direct exposure did not recently travel to China…or in general that you go buy a face mask.”

According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, the coronavirus is spread due to sick people not undertaking the typical don’t get other people sick advice; stay home if you’re sick, cough into the sleeve of your elbow, stay away from other sick people, and the most significant line of defense is to properly wash your hands.

Are we all losing our minds, though? What’s the point of surgical masks that we’re made to wear if we go to the doctor and have cold or flu symptoms? Turns out, surgical masks are useful if you are sick—but not so much if you’re trying not to get sick. Just let that sink in when you buy the masks. Use them if you or your kid have a cold — just don’t expect them to be a shield for everything else.

“Wearing a surgical mask helps you prevent sharing your germs if you’re sick,” Saskia Popescu, a hospital epidemiologist, and infection prevention expert said to CNN. “Surgical masks do not seal around the face, so while they offer some protection, it’s the mask N95 [a true respiratory mask we see doctors wear on TV] that offers the most protection.”

While everyone is worried about the coronavirus, people are forgetting about the common flu, which is active and spreading in the United States. It can be just as deadly and damaging, so instead of rushing out to buy surgical masks, stock up on soap and read up on those proper hand-washing techniques. Oh, and keep your sick kids home, OK?

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