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  • Writer's pictureThink Upstream

Should we wear masks when we go outside?

There are lots of expert voices right now advising whether or not we should be wearing masks when we go outside. And there’s nothing wrong with wearing them, they can provide a lot of assurance. But here are a couple things to think about.
Someone holds a handful of colourful face masks.

Jo Snyder

Let’s start by considering who should wear masks. Masks provide an essential layer of protection if you’re a medical professional, working with the broad public, experiencing symptoms, or caretaking for someone who is sick.

If wearing a mask makes you feel safer and eases the very natural anxiety that comes with our current reality, go ahead. But consider The Guardian’s mask fact check: “Wearing a face mask is certainly not an iron-clad guarantee that you won’t get sick – viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks.”

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer, reminds us that wearing a mask can provide a false sense of security and can increase the number of times you touch your face as you subconsciously adjust it and take it on and off. They don’t protect our eyes. The outside of the mask can get contaminated. So handwashing and physical distancing remain key. That said, Dr. Tam has updated her advice on masks saying it's an additional measure you can take.

At the same time, Canada delivers this advice, countries around the world are starting to make masks mandatory. Dr. Allison McGeer, infectious disease expert at Mount Sinai Hospital, says countries that are doing a good job at containing COVID-19 are doing a number of things: “They have a lot of testing. Their contact tracing is awesome. … and it’s not at all clear that everybody wearing masks is what’s making the difference. They have a much better-resourced health system than we do.”

But to prevent community spread, the holy trinity is key: stay home except to get essential provisions, wash your hands often, and keep a six-foot physical distance from people when you do go out in the world.

Masks can help, but they’re not as effective as physical distancing

Masks are only effective if you wash your hands before and after putting them on and if you don’t touch your face while wearing them—which includes adjusting them, taking them off and putting them back on again, or wearing them over and over again.

Masks are only necessary if you have a cough or are sneezing a lot, if you’re taking care of someone who could be at risk, who is immunocompromised, or who has underlying conditions or is otherwise at risk. 

And homemade masks might not provide you with the protection you’re hoping for, as this Government of Canada notice to the general public and health care professionals explain.

The best course of action remains, staying home, washing your hands, only going out for essentials or a short walk close to home and keeping six feet of physical distance between you and others.

Make sure that those who need masks have them

Our frontline workers are running out of personal protective equipment (PPE) at an alarming rate. When our health care system starts to break from the strain, and when our health practitioners get sick and can’t work, we all feel the impact. Priority for who gets a mask in Canada is a key consideration as we continue to see exponential growth of COVID-19 across the country. It’s not about who is more deserving but, rather, the need to ensure these essential supplies get to the right place at the right time.

What you can do right now

If you choose to wear a mask, please watch these instructive videos from the World Health Organization to learn how to do it properly.

No matter what you decide about masks, please do this for yourself and for your community: Stay home. Wash your hands. Stay six feet apart—and remember that we’re all in this together.

Jo Snyder is a seasoned communications professional with expertise on the social determinants of health and health equity. Over her career, she's worked with think tanks, non-profits and big tech to deliver comms of all kinds.

This project has been made possible in part by the Government of Canada.


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