Guidance against wearing masks for the coronavirus is wrong – you should cover your face.
If you can successfully block access to your nose, throat, and eyes, you will avoid infection by the coronavirus, flu, and any of several hundred other respiratory viruses.
Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, public health authorities have advised us that masks are not necessary and should not be used by the general public for protection against the rapidly spreading virus.
There are compelling scientific reasons for this:
Masks work. There is widespread evidence from the field of occupational health, the SARS epidemic, and other outbreaks that wearing masks protects us from germs and interrupts the transmission of disease from sick to healthy people.
Masks are the best way to enforce the “do not touch your face” mantra we are hearing about for COVID-19. The coronavirus, like all respiratory viruses, needs to enter mucous membranes in the nose, throat, and eyes to cause infection. If you can successfully block access to these critical entry points, you will avoid infection by the coronavirus, flu, and any of several hundred other respiratory viruses. Unfortunately, we humans are relatively unique among mammals in that we continuously touch our eyes, noses, and mouths for seemingly no reason every 2.5 minutes. This behavior is hard-wired and starts in utero. Let’s get real — we’re not going to be able to instantly stop doing something we’ve been doing our whole lives.
So what’s the answer? Cover your face with a mask. This will deny you access to your own face and make you conscious of how often you are tempted to touch your nose and mouth.
Wearing masks is a powerful signal to others that these are not normal times, and that we all need to change our behaviors to stop a potentially devastating epidemic. Wearing a mask for the first time can be deeply uncomfortable, especially when others are not doing the same. We felt strange at first, but after a few days, we’ve become proud rather than embarrassed to wear a mask outside. If more people donned masks, it would become a social norm as well as a public health good. If we can stop handshaking to fight COVID-19, we can also end mask stigma.
Asian countries such as South Korea where there is little to no stigma around the wearing of face masks have seen far fewer cases and deaths from Coronoavirus when compared to the UK. Of course, there will be other factors that have contributed to this but the value of face masks should not be ignored.
So what needs to be done here in the United Kingdom? Cover your face. Masks should be placed over the mouth and nose and removed carefully, without touching the outside surface.
We must also encourage others to cover their faces too. We need to change our perception that masks are only for sick people and that it’s weird or shameful to wear one. Instead, donning a mask needs to be seen as a responsible action to protect the wearer’s health and the health of those in close proximity to her. If our political leaders and cultural influencers put on masks, we could change our social attitudes and norms rapidly.
This will not be easy. Adding further instructions on top of everything we are being asked to do to stop COVID-19 could lead to overload and fatigue. However, handwashing, social distancing, and doing your best not to touch your face are not enough to stop the coronavirus. For the health of your neighbor and yourself, wear a mask.