Since the start of the pandemic, the changing advice on face masks has led many residents to contact my office, seeking clarity. Who should wear a mask and when? Why has advice changed? Should everyone be required to wear a mask when out in public?
Because we should rely on Public Health and medical professionals for most of these answers, I have been reluctant to venture into this territory. But because it is difficult to find a comprehensive official source for this information, I am assembling some of what’s available from reputable sources.
Please note that there are not as many definitive answers as some would like, and we all need to conduct our own research and take the necessary precautions based on individual circumstances and judgement. To cover a lot of information in a comprehensible way, I’m changing my usual format for this newsletter to a Q and A.
What is the current advice on masks and why has it changed? As more becomes known about the COVID-19 virus, and as the pandemic moves through different stages, advice changes accordingly. That’s a good thing.
At the beginning of the pandemic, most cases were connected to people who had travelled. In addition, advice on who should wear a mask appears to have been linked to an overall shortage of masks for health professionals.
There was also a concern — and still is — that masks will create a false sense of security or won’t be used properly. Over the course of the pandemic we’ve learned that the virus is easily spread through droplets, and infections are now most commonly spread through community transmission. It also became clear that the virus is spread by individuals before they show symptoms, and that some people who have the virus never show any symptoms at all.
So, any of us could be spreading the virus without knowing it. That’s why it is now recommended that you wear a mask when you are out in public.
Does a Mask Keep Me Safe? Public Health officials have been clear that the reason for wearing a mask is to protect others, not yourself, by reducing the spread of your respiratory droplets. The more people who wear masks in public, the safer we all are.
Answers on whether a mask makes the wearer safer are less clear. Logically, a mask would stop some droplets headed towards your face, but there are also cautions that you could make yourself less safe if you don’t use a mask properly. The biggest concern is that the mask could give us a false sense of security and cause us to be less vigilant about the measures that protect us best: social distancing and hand washing. Also, because the mask could collect virus, it is important that you not fiddle with it, or take it on and off, and then touch your face. Disposable masks must be discarded after each use; reusable cloth masks must be washed after each use.
Where Should I Wear a Mask? Ideally, you should be wearing a mask in any situation where you might find yourself within two metres of anyone who isn’t part of your household — if you are in a grocery store with other shoppers in it, for example, or if you take public transit. One constituent wanted to know if we should wear a mask every time we go out. Again, the criteria are the same: if you’re on a crowded sidewalk, maybe yes; if you’re going for a walk in the woods, maybe not. You need to apply your judgement to any individual situation.
Should Everyone Be Required to Wear a Mask? That’s a firm maybe — based on a mixture of who has the legal authority to require it, and when that authority should reasonably be used. Stores can require masks within their premises and some grocers are already doing that. It would not surprise me if, at some point, the TTC requires masks, not only to make both passengers and staff safer but to create an environment that makes the public comfortable using public transit again. A decision of that type would depend on the level of risk — how prevalent is the virus in the community, how crowded is the transit — combined with other factors — are enough masks available and what about people who can’t afford them?
How do I get a mask? Some stores are selling the disposable kind, but these are still hard to come by and are still in somewhat short supply for health professionals and personal support workers. So better to buy a washable cloth mask if you can find them online or from a local retailer. Or you can make one yourself — but only if you are following reliable instructions from a reliable source. Here are some links to more information: for the Government of Canada, click here, Toronto Public Health, click here. For John’s Hopkins, which has an additional directive that the material have a pattern on it, click here.
If you are a health professional or someone with a particular need for a mask and can’t afford one, please see below the remarkable story of some local residents who have already made and distributed more than 10,000 free masks.
Finally, this is Nursing Week. Today’s music video from Coldplay is a shout out to the many thousands of nurses on the COVID front lines, risking their lives to make ours safer, “look at the stars, see how they shine for you and everything you do.” To watch today’s music video, click here.