B.C.'s top doctor stops short of recommending widespread mask use, but says they can protect others
'Medical masks and respirators need to be reserved for our health-care workers' said Dr. Bonnie Henry
The question of whether non-medical masks — like those made of cloth and sewed at home — can effectively protect against the spread of COVID-19 has been a debate since January.
But on Monday, Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, said that wearing a non-medical mask in tandem with physical distancing can help prevent transmission of the virus — a departure from earlier statements, where she had been reluctant to advise the widespread use of masks for the general Canadian public.
"The science is not certain but we we need to do everything that we can and it seems a sensible thing to do," she said, adding a non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or landing on surfaces.
In B.C., provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry stopped short of recommending that all members of the public wear masks, but said they can protect others from droplets in situations where practising proper physical distancing is difficult or impossible, like in grocery stores or on public transit.
"We've been reviewing evidence from around the world. It's not a recommendation — it's a permissive use, if you will. This virus can't jump six feet. When you're outside, maintaining physical distance works, and we've seen that here in B.C.," she said during a daily briefing on the spread of COVID-19.
"A handmade cloth face-covering that we've seen people using in other places — for short term, they can protect others around you from your droplets. So it's not going to protect you from getting this virus. But, in the short term, it is a similar analogy to coughing into your sleeve or coughing into your tissue."
Watch Dr. Bonnie Henry explain the function of wearing a mask:
Henry emphasized that medical masks and respirators "need to be reserved for our health-care settings and health-care workers."
"That's where they do the most good," she said.
Tam previously expressed concern that wearing a mask could give people a "false sense of security" that could encourage wearers to relax physical distancing.
She said new research on patients aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship — as many as 712 people who were aboard the vessel contracted the virus — and a recently published report out of Singapore were behind the policy change.
Similar shift by CDC
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) announced a similar policy shift over the weekend, saying that "new evidence" had led it to recommend that people wear cloth face coverings in public areas.
"We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms ("asymptomatic") and that even those who eventually develop symptoms ("pre-symptomatic") can transmit the virus to others before showing symptoms," the agency said in a statement on its website.
"This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity — for example, speaking, coughing or sneezing — even if those people are not exhibiting symptoms."
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