When Should Canadians Wear Non-Medical Face Masks?

It's an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.

The conditions of how to stay safe and healthy in the time of the coronavirus seem to be changing every day. It can feel confusing, and face masks are a topic of particular debate.

Early on, in addition to physical distancing, it was suggested that only those experiencing symptoms of COVID-19, or those tending to a sick person, should be wearing face masks. The World Health Organization currently maintains that stance.

But, over the weekend, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) had a change of heart. It reversed its own long-standing position, recommending, instead, that we all wear “cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g. grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

Canada revises its position, too

Then, Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said on Monday, “The special advisory committee on COVID-19 has come to a consensus that wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you.”

It’s intended as a matter of precaution. Recent studies have shown a considerable portion of persons infected with the novel coronavirus don’t show symptoms of the virus at all (“asymptomatic”), and that it’s possible to transmit it before showing any signs of having it (“pre-symptomatic”).

In plain language: you could be infected with COVID-19 and not know it.

So, we should behave as if we and everyone around us has COVID-19.

Tam echoed the CDC, saying that non-medical masks can help you protect others around you when you can’t maintain that six feet of distance.

There are select scenarios in which it is still recommended that people wear face masks.
There are select scenarios in which it is still recommended that people wear face masks.

What does this mean for me as a Canadian resident?

Everyone can and must do their part to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, Canadian health officials have said repeatedly. Wearing a non-medical face in high-risk situations is one of many prevention tactics Canadians should be employing.

Even if you’re wearing a mask in public, you should continue washing your hands regularly, avoid touching your face, practice physical distancing, stay home as much as possible, and self-isolate if you are showing symptoms, Public Health Canada recommends.

Make sure you're frequently washing your hands with warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds.
Make sure you're frequently washing your hands with warm water for a minimum of 20 seconds.

Why should I wear a mask?

COVID-19 spreads from an infected person through close personal contact, like touching or hand shaking; touching something with the virus on it, then touching your face before washing your hands; and through respiratory droplets, which are generated when you cough or sneeze.

Wearing a homemade mask won’t necessarily increase your own protection from getting infected with the novel coronavirus. What it will do, though, is help prevent you from spreading it if you’re already carrying it. Face masks help to prevent those droplets from travelling and landing on others or on surfaces where they can be picked up.

In countries that have been drastically impacted by the coronavirus, like Italy and Spain, experts have linked wearing masks with slower infection rates, according to the South China Morning Post. The research is not currently definitive on exactly how much homemade face masks help in slowing the spread of COVID-19, however.

In addition to wearing a mask, all other prevention measures should still be followed. That means staying at home as much as possible, not gathering in groups, limiting contact with those who are at higher risk (ie. older adults and immunocompromised people), and physical distancing from others.

When should I wear a mask?

There are specific circumstances in which wearing a homemade facial covering has been suggested.

Those situations include travelling on public transit and navigating the grocery store, as well as any other scenario in which it becomes tough to practice the recommended two metres of physical distancing from the people around you.

Per Tam’s guidelines, you don’t need to wear a mask when you’re out alone, say, for a walk, if you’re able to stay six feet away from those around you.

You don’t need to wear a mask at home with the family or people in your household you’re isolating with, unless you or someone else is sick, or either of you has been in direct contact with someone who has contracted COVID-19, or has travelled in the last 14 days.

In the event that someone you live with is infected, your goal should still be to distance yourself from them as much as possible, and to practice good hygiene when you’ve come into contact with them.

In places where you can't maintain two metres of physical distance, like grocery stores, it's recommended that you wear a mask.
In places where you can't maintain two metres of physical distance, like grocery stores, it's recommended that you wear a mask.

Should my mask be N95 or homemade?

As of this writing, the accepted science seems to have concluded that N95 masks — sophisticated, medical-grade facial coverings that filter out 95 per cent of airborne particles — are best reserved for frontline healthcare workers.

That means that if you’re planning to wear a mask, it should be homemade. Canada is already experiencing a shortage of N95 masks as is.

Many people have begun making their own masks right at home, using supplies from around the house like t-shirts, pant legs, bandanas and handkerchiefs.

Breathing in the masks should not be restricted at all, and the masks should be able to be put in the washing machine without damage or change of shape.

How can I make my own face mask?

There are plenty of video tutorials online that show you how you can make your own. The CDC recommends that all cloth coverings should fit snugly against your face, be secured with ties or ear loops, and include multiple layers of fabric.

Check out three easy ways to make your own non-medical face mask, using a sewing machine or no-sew, and using materials you most likely have at home.

How do I wear and care for my mask?

You should handle your mask carefully, and ensure that it fits snugly against your face, covering both your nose and your mouth. When removing the mask, you should take it off by pulling on the straps from behind your ears and avoid touching the front.

Dr. Daniel Griffin, an expert on infectious diseases at Columbia University, also suggests treating homemade masks like underwear: they should be washed after each use.

And it bears repeating again: you should continue washing your hands regularly — especially before putting on your mask and before and after you have removed your mask, and avoid touching your face.