04/06/2020 14:08 EDT

Canadians Can Wear Non-Medical Masks To Prevent COVID-19 Spread: Feds

But let’s save the N95 and surgical masks for our health-care workers.

Public health officials are now advising Canadians to wear non-medical masks in public to protect others.

It is increasingly clear that pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic COVID-19 patients can spread the novel coronavirus more often than previously thought, said Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s chief public health officer, Monday. 

A non-medical, cloth mask, such as a scarf or fabric mask, does not protect the person covering their mouth and nose from contracting COVID-19, but it can protect those they come into close contact with when physical distancing isn’t possible, Tam said. 

She stressed that all medical masks must continue to go to health-care providers. 

Canada's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam attends a news conference updating the COVID-19 situation in Ottawa on March 13, 2020.

The announcement marks a substantial change in approach. As recently as last Friday, Canadian officials refused to say to what extent the novel coronavirus is being spread by people not experiencing symptoms, and insisted that wearing non-medical masks wasn’t necessary. 

When asked why it took this long for Canada to make the advisory, Tam said it was because researchers still don’t know how important the transmission is from pre-symptomatic or asymptomatic people. However, public health officials decided Canadians should take all possible precautions with the goal of flattening the curve of COVID-19 cases.

The United States’ Center for Disease Control and Prevention made a similar recommendation last week. 

“A non-medical mask is an additional measure you can take to protect others around you in places where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, such as in public transit or the grocery story,” Tam said.

“It does not mean you can back off the other health measures that continue to protect you, so you can practise physical distancing and good hygiene like regular handwashing.” 

A fabric barrier can reduce the chance of your “respiratory droplets,” which could carry the novel coronavirus, landing on another person, or surface, she said. It can be as simple as a piece of T-shirt cloth folded and attached to faces using elastic bands. Public health will release more recommendations in the coming days. 

Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told reporters that buying medical supplies during this global pandemic is “really a wild west.” 

“Every country in the world is doing its best in a truly fierce competition to get medical equipment,” Freeland said. “Canada is working really, really hard to get all the supplies we need. It’s hard and that’s why I’m so grateful to all the Canadian manufacturers across the country who are stepping up to figure out how to make medical and testing equipment right here in Canada.”

Matthew Horwood/Getty Images
A box of N95 surgical face masks in Cardiff, U.K. on on April 03, 2020. 

President Donald Trump, for example, recently pressured N95 respirator manufacturer 3M to stop exporting masks to Canada. Freeland said Monday that Canadian officials are having “positive” conversations with the Trump administration, emphasizing that trade is a two-way street and both countries will lose if the flow of supplies stops. 

Canadian manufacturers are switching their assembly lines to produce medical supplies, including ventilators, medical gowns, and face shields.   

“As Canadians we may not outwardly demonstrate our pride, but our hearts are full of it and we are determined people,” Tam said. “When someone says flatten the curve, we say plank it. We are stronger together and we will get through this together.”