Everything there is to know about face masks

This is part of a series looking at how the current coronavirus crisis is affecting people with disability. What behaviours do we need to change?

WELL, WHAT DOES THE CHIEF MEDICAL OFFICER SAY?

Sometimes the official health advice is changing so fast it’s difficult to keep up and that’s confusing. Don’t we turn to the experts because they know things? Why isn’t there a simple, clear “yes or no” to even a simple question, like, “should I wear a mask”?

Besides that, if there’s only one right answer, shouldn’t it be the same in Australia as it is in America (at this point it seems appropriate to give a big shout out to our US readers!)? If not why not?

Interestingly, this is a case where what’s right for you may not be right for ‘the public’. In other words ‘medical’ advice might not be the same as ‘public health’ advice, or, if you prefer, we act differently as groups than we do as individuals.

So, do you wear a mask or not?

YOU’RE NOT CONFUSED, THEY ARE.

ON February 29th 2020 US Surgeon general Jerome Adams had enough of the panic buying of masks and decided to tweet (in capitals) STOP BUYING MASKS! They are, he insisted, “NOT effective” and insisted they were needed for healthcare workers caring for sick patients.

Just pause here, for a second, to examine at the apparent, underlying illogicality of his tweet. He says the masks are not effective. Fine. Then he says they’re needed for health care workers. What? Why would nurses and doctors need masks if they’re useless? It doesn’t make sense.

Not individually, of course, but that wasn’t the point of the tweet. The Surgeon General isn’t woried about your health, he’s worried about the health of every US citizen. As such his vital requirement is to deploy scarce resources (masks) where they are most needed (hospitals). It was, if you like, a white lie.

What Adams was really trying to say was that the critical social need is to provide masks for front line health workers who have a 100% chance of coming into contact with people infected with Covid-19 and not people who have a smaller, even negligable chance. But that’s a different thing, of course, and that’s not what he said. He probably thought that if he said what he meant then everybody would just rush out and buy masks and that would increase the shortage of resources.

SO WHAT HAPPENED?

Just weeks later President Donald Trump abruptly changed that advice in his own typical style by saying the Centre for Disease Control was now advising that everyone should wear masks but that he, personally, wasn’t going to.

The CDC’s reccomendation, however, was to wear “non-medical cloth masks”, which is in itself unusual. Surely if you want to really protect yourself you need a proper medical mask, and not something that isn’t secure and with gaps around the cheeks? Well yes, but it’s easy to suspect that that actually isn’t the motivation behind the CDC’s announcement.

As you may have discovered – if you have ever wandered around with a face-mask on – the big thing that occurrs is that you always remember the need to social distance (or keep away from other people). It’s as clear as having a big reminder note stuck in front of your face, and that helps other people remember too.

So the whole point of wearing a mask might not actually be to prevent infection. The real purpose of getting everyone to wear masks might really be to get then to remember the danger and behave carefully. This would explain why the CDC said, more or less, “any mask will do”. It won’t really, but perhaps that’s not the point.

The critical thing is to change people’s behaviour.

SO, SHOULD I WEAR A MASK?

The list of people who really need to wear a mask begins with anyone who’s infected. The whole idea of a mask is to stop someone passing their germs -and the virus – to someone else by breathing on them or accidently transmitting the virus in an invisible bubble of moisture.

The trouble is, of course, that people often don’t know if they’re infected until it’s too late. A mask will also, obviously, provide an additional barrier between you and the nasty world outside, and this must inevitably provide you with some small degree of extry security.

So the answer is, it depends.

Perhaps at thimes like this it’s better to be safe than sorry and so a mask – even if it’s not a brilliant one – is better than nothing. And, of course, it’s the law!

Nic Stuart

Nicholas Stuart is an author (Kevin Rudd, an unauthorised political biography; What Goes Up, behind the 2007 election; Kevin Rudd, 2007 - 2011) and columnist with the Canberra Times. He was the ABC's Indochina Correspondent when he suffered a significant head injury in a car crash in Bangkok.

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