Tourists wear protective masks as they gather at the Vatican in Rome to hear the Pope's weekly address. Tourists wear protective masks as they gather at the Vatican in Rome to hear the Pope's weekly address. Tourists wear protective masks as they gather at the Vatican in Rome to hear the Pope's weekly address. (Photo: Andreas Solaro / AFP via Getty Images)

Why wearing a surgical mask in public isn't about you

From the common cold and flu to the coronavirus, it's more useful for someone who is already sick to cover their face, according to an infectious disease doctor.

As the coronavirus continues to make its way across the globe, misinformation seems to be spreading faster than the virus itself.

Constantly seeing photos of people in Asia wearing face masks has caused those in other countries to rush to get them as well. Many stores are now sold out of them, creating a run on sites like Amazon, where third-party sellers have more than quadrupled their prices. The uptick in interest in face masks could lead to a serious shortage of America's emergency stockpile. It has all compelled the Surgeon General to tweet out in all caps: "STOP BUYING MASKS!"

Could these masks prevent you from getting the coronavirus? Not likely, according to experts. Dr. Ran Nir-Paz is an infectious disease physician at Hadassah Hospital in Jerusalem. He's all-too familiar with the latest mutation. When hundreds of people got sick with the coronavirus aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship, the Israeli doctor flew to Japan to help. He himself is now in quarantine at his home for two weeks to ensure he is not carrying the disease. "Surgical masks are mainly there to prevent the person who wears them from transmitting droplets to the environment," he explained. "They're not good at protecting getting a disease from the environment. They're not blocking the air coming in. They're just taking most of the moisture that comes from our mouth and nose out."

A surgical mask is much more useful for someone who is sick to prevent them from getting other, more vulnerable, people sick. Added Dr. Nir-Paz: "If you are sick, and you have a runny nose, then you should put a surgical mask on your way to the physician."

Due to the coronavirus outbreak, this medical equipment factory switched surgical instruments and dental equipment production lines to a mask production line to meet the increased demand. Due to the coronavirus outbreak, this medical equipment factory switched surgical instruments and dental equipment production lines to a mask production line to meet the increased demand. (Photo: STR / AFP via Getty Images)

Indeed, Dr. Nir-Paz and other physicians are working tirelessly to get the word out that there are more practical things people can be doing to keep themselves safe – namely to wash your hands as frequently as possible, especially after coming in contact with things like a public staircase railing or doorknobs at your workplace.

People who feel sick should cough into their elbow to avoid spreading the virus. What's extremely pernicious about this mutation is that it can be so mild at times that people may not even realize they have the virus. "Such people are being called the 'super spreaders,'" he said. "When they feel very healthy and interact with a lot of people and spread – I would say spread the word, but in this case they spread the virus."

Dr. Ran Nir-Paz (left) and Revital Ben-Naim, the Consul to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, on their way to visit Israeli patients at the hospital. Dr. Ran Nir-Paz (left) and Revital Ben-Naim, the Consul to the Israeli Embassy in Tokyo, on their way to visit Israeli patients at the hospital. (Photo: Courtesy Hadassah Medical Organization)

Surgical masks vs. N95 masks

Surgical masks are not the only kind of face coverings that are becoming harder to find nowadays. A more sophisticated face mask, called N95 in the U.S. (it has different numerical names in other countries), has become in high demand in recent weeks. In theory, they are stronger than surgical masks at keeping out unwanted airborne particles, but they are still not recommended for mass consumption.

"The main purpose of those masks is to prevent the medical personnel from catching a disease from their patients," Dr. Nir-Paz said. "In order to use those masks properly, you need to know how to wear those. It's a bit tricky. It won't help generally when you go out to the street."

Alex M. Azar II, the U.S. secretary of health and human services, told a Congressional panel last month that there are 30 million N95 masks in the nation’s emergency stockpile. They typically only cost about $1 each, but are now being sold for around $16 on Amazon. Other stores that usually sell N95 masks – like auto parts shops and paint stores – are now reporting that they are out of stock.

The Centers for Disease Control has published an infographic to help explain the differences between the two masks:

Understanding the difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators. Understanding the difference between surgical masks and N95 respirators. (Photo: Infographic courtesy of the CDC)

The CDC is not alone in combatting what the World Health Organization has called an "infodemic." The global group is posting new social media graphics each day to help dispel myths and rumors about the spread of the coronavirus, and have even joined TikTok. The video below has already been viewed 21 million times:

@who We are joining @tiktok to provide you with reliable and timely public health advice! Our first post: How to protect yourself from ##coronavirus ?
♬ original sound - who

The bottom line? Be smart and prepared. Donald G. McNeil Jr., a science and health reporter for The New York Times, said that people should be aware of supply chain issues. Certain items that we expect to find at grocery stores and pharmacies may encounter shipping delays. He suggested that people stock about a month's worth of staples and food – including medical prescriptions, generic pain medication, tissues, pet food, and items for your pantry that have a long shelf life – like cereal, pasta and canned goods.

Dr. Nir-Paz said people should avoid unnecessary international travel for the time being. Like the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic, it's possible the number of cases will drop in the summer, as viruses don't usually flourish in hot weather. But the number of cases might come roaring back in the fall. Until a vaccine is readily available to the mass public – which could be in late 2020 or early 2021 by some estimates – Dr. Nir-Paz said it's a tricky issue. "Practically speaking, this mutation changes from day to day, and for that reason you need to follow your healthcare authorities recommendations."

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