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COVID-19 update: Are masks important? What role do they play and what do you need to know about them?

We've teamed up with qualified epidemiologist and public health specialist Elizabeth Lucy to bring you the latest updates and tops regarding the COVID-19 pandemic. This week? Are masks important?

By Elizabeth Lucy

Globally, masks are becoming a key component of reopening our countries post lockdown. Singapore has sent a mask to every resident and leaving the house without a mask can result in fines in some countries across the globe.

Here in the UK, it is not recommended to wear masks unless you are indoors and cannot maintain a 2-metre social distance. At this point, you will need to wear a mask and you will also need to wear a mask on any public transport. 

But why are masks important? What role do they play? and what do you need to know about them? The first thing to know is that not all masks are the same.

Face coverings, non-surgical masks, cloth masks and mouth coverings are used to protect other people. So if everyone is wearing one then we all protect each other.

“Why do I need to wear a mask if I’m not sick” you might ask, the answer is that large numbers of people can have the virus and not know it because they don’t have any symptoms. Lots of emerging research suggesting this could be as high as 40-60% could either be asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic. The latter means that you are infectious but you don’t have symptoms yet.

The best evidence at present, suggests you can be really infectious two days before you even start to show any symptoms. This is important because no one knows if they are infected or exposed so if we are all wearing masks then we protect each other. Face coverings are easy to make at home, I’ve made a video below to show you a quick and easy way to make a face mask at home without sewing.

There are other types of mask, such as an N95 or N100, which are masks with a filter that can catch viral particles. N95 masks have been shown in scientific studies to block viral particles, therefore providing safety to the person wearing it.

Both well-fitting surgical masks and N95 masks have been shown to be effective in preventing the transmission of SARS by 68% and 91%, respectively, tests relating to SARS-COV-2 are still ongoing.

If you want to get one of these highly filtered masks, be cautious in ensuring a good quality product due to a large number of counterfeit products on the internet.

The use of face masks is valuable in preventing droplet spread, it disrupts the forward momentum of particles expelled from a cough or sneeze. This aims to prevent disease transmission and protecting others by preventing the virus from entering the breathing zones of people nearby. Also, be cautious in handling masks as viral particles can settle on the outer surface after exposure.

Therefore when removing, practice caution, don’t touch the front of the mask, fold it inwards and then ensure it goes straight into the washing machine and of course, wash your hands!

Elizabeth is a qualified epidemiologist and Public Health specialist.

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