British Columbia

B.C. health officials 'considering' widespread mask use as COVID-19 cases rise

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soar, B.C. health officials are facing questions about whether a wider use of face masks could curb the spread.

Supply should be saved for frontline health-care workers, says Dr. Bonnie Henry

A statue of Scottish poet Robert Burns is pictured wearing a protective mask in Stanley Park in Vancouver, B.C., in March. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

As the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases soar, B.C. health officials are starting to consider whether the wider use of face masks could curb the spread.

Provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry has so far recommended against widespread community use. That's consistent with advice given by the World Health Organization, the Government of Canada and the nation's chief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam: Unless you are exhibiting symptoms, you don't need to wear a face mask.

Henry also warned that wearing a mask improperly could lead people to fiddle with it and contaminate it, especially if they do not wash their hands before removing and donning the mask.

But the stance against face masks softened Wednesday when Henry said her team is now looking into community use.

"Obviously, this is something we've been considering as well," she said at her daily press conference Wednesday. 

Henry said masks might have some benefit for people who don't have any symptoms.

"The use of non-medical masks ... may reduce, in some cases, the touching of your face [and] they can have some benefit in keeping your droplets in," she said.

"But we need to be careful ... what is not proven is that they provide you with any protection. That's the really critical part."

B.C. provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry explains modelling for COVID-19 in the province on March 27, 2020. (Mike McArthur/CBC)

Lack of consensus

There is currently no global consensus on whether a widespread use of face masks would slow down the spread of COVID-19. 

But European countries like Austria and Czech Republic are now making it mandatory to wear masks. And the practice is common in several East Asian countries that have seen some success in keeping transmission low.

Benjamin Cowling, professor of infectious disease epidemiology at the University of Hong Kong, says there is evidence that face masks are just as effective as hand hygiene in preventing the spread of respiratory viruses.

And while physical distancing appears to be most effective in curtailing the spread of COVID-19, "it would make sense that if everybody was wearing face masks, there would be less chance of transmission to occur than if people are not wearing masks," Cowling said.

"There is definite recognition that some infected persons have been able to spread infection before their symptoms appear. So if everybody wears a face mask, it also reduces the chance that if you're infected, you're going to spread infection to other people."

Vancouver dentist Patrick Wu and a group of volunteers donate medical supplies to St. Paul’s hospital and Vancouver General Hospital. (Patrick Wu)

Reserving limited supply

Henry maintains that B.C.'s health-care workers are a priority to receive the province's limited supply of masks. 

After hearing that health-care workers are facing a shortage of personal protective equipment, Vancouver dentist Patrick Wu says he and other volunteers started collecting face masks and other supplies to donate to local hospitals.

But while he agrees health-care workers have the most urgent need for masks, Wu also makes sure to wear one when he is in a public space.

Wu, who was born in Taiwan and grew up in Vancouver, says people in other Asian countries also do the same.

"During this pandemic, we're all fearful of the airborne disease, so [we believe] wearing a mask gives us some protection," he said.