In Wuhan, China, where the novel coronavirus has killed at least 106 people and sickened 4,515 more, wearing face masks is mandatory.
Half a world way in the US, major retailers are selling out of basic surgical masks amid panic from consumers.(So far, there have been five confirmed cases of coronavirus here.)
Surgical masks are a basic defense against some viruses, and they may be helpful in communities where health officials suspect viruses are circulating widely.
But in the US, there’s no need to wear surgical masks – or the N95 respirators physicians wear when treating viruses – says infectious disease expert Dr. Charles Chiu.
There’s no evidence of sustained novel coronavirus transmission in the US like there is in China, and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not recommended Americans wear masks in public.
“Right now, there’s no evidence that [wearing face masks] is going to help prevent that infection,” Chiu, a professor of laboratory medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, told CNN. “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.”
Physicians wear masks, but the US public shouldn’t
Americans are scooping up two kinds of masks
- Surgical masks
- N95 respirators
The CDC doesn’t recommend public citizens wear either of them.
Surgical masks: While they do protect from large respiratory droplets (a spray from a sneeze or mucus from a cough), they don’t prevent against airborne droplets. Surgical masks aren’t considered respiratory protection by the CDC because they don’t filter smaller particles, and therefore isn’t effective in totally preventing coronavirus transmission.
“Wearing a surgical mask helps you prevent sharing your germs if you’re sick,” Saskia Popescu, a hospital epidemiologist and infection prevention expert, told CNN. “Surgical masks do not seal around the face, so while they offer some protection, it’s the N95 mask that offers the most protection.”
N95 respirators: Should you wear an N95 respirator depends on whether you’re a physician involved in a particular task.
The CDC does recommend that healthcare providers wear N95 respirators, face masks that filter at least 95% of airborne particles, if they treat a patient infected with the novel coronavirus.