As messaging on masks evolves, Winnipeg business is making protective gear for city's homeless

For the last several weeks, Canadian public health officials have said there's no need for face masks for those who aren't exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms. That message is starting to change, though.

No harm in wearing non-surgical face masks if hand hygiene and physical distancing continue, officials say

Nathan Bezoplenko of Wilder Goods is making homemade face masks to donate to Main Street Project. (Submitted by Sophia Kutsiuruba)

The owners of Wilder Goods normally spend their days making leather products out of their downtown Winnipeg studio, but lately they've been working from their homes making face masks for some of the city's most vulnerable people.

"We didn't know exactly how to approach [the novel coronavirus pandemic]," said Nathan Bezoplenko. "It just didn't feel like bags and accessories should be top of mind during something like this."

Bezoplenko feels making the masks is one way to help out — even though there have been conflicting messages around how many of us should be wearing masks to fight the spread of COVID-19.

For weeks, Canadian public health officials said face masks are unnecessary for those who aren't exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, and that non-medical masks — or poorly-fitted medical masks — won't filter out small airborne particles carrying the virus.

However, while officials still say the evidence isn't entirely clear yet, some of the messaging on masks is starting to change.

On Thursday, Manitoba's chief provincial health officer, Dr. Brent Roussin, said it's not known how effective non-medical masks are, but that they might help prevent people from touching their faces.

WATCH | Dr. Brent Roussin talks about homemade face masks

Dr. Roussin on making face masks at home

4 years ago
Duration 1:04
Featured VideoDr. Brent Roussin says homemade face masks might keep people from touching their faces, but shouldn't replace physical distancing and good hygiene.

He cautioned, though, that people shouldn't feel emboldened to leave their homes and interact with people just because they're wearing a mask.

"That would be a mistake," Roussin said.

The day before, federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu and Dr. Theresa Tam, the chief public health officer of Canada, also began to relax their messaging, giving mask-wearing a cautious OK.

Hajdu says there's no harm in wearing a mask, so long as you can do so without taking medical-grade masks away from the front-line health-care workers who need them most.

Tam echoed that, adding non-surgical masks shouldn't replace hand-washing or physical distancing.

"The effectiveness of the use of non-medical masks hasn't really been well demonstrated," said Tam.

"But I think that there may not be any harm in wearing [a mask], if one uses it properly — it's not gaping, it's really well fitted and you practise hygienic measures," such as regular hand-washing and not touching your face under the mask.

More information pouring in

Meanwhile in B.C., provincial public health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry says she might start to encourage more widespread mask use there, because there may be 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."

Though the science still isn't clear at this stage in the coronavirus pandemic, in Winnipeg, the local non-profit Main Street Project has put out a call for donations of face masks to help the city's most vulnerable people.

Nathan Bezoplenko of Wilder Goods is spending his days at home making face masks for Main Street Project. (Submitted by Sophia Kutsiuruba)

Bezoplenko and Wilder co-owner Brendon Friesen are responding to that call, and have so far made a few dozen out of cotton or cotton-blend materials.

Ideally the masks can be sanitized and reused, Bezoplenko said, but they can also be thrown away.

It was important, he said, "to kind of get involved in some small way, to keep ourselves busy and keep ourselves from stressing out too much — just to know that maybe we're moving in the right direction, even if it's super slow."

"We have sewing machines, we know how to sew, we have fabric."

In Toronto, Michael Garron Hospital has asked volunteers to sew 1,000 masks a week during the crisis, so staff can give them to visitors and discharged patients. The surgical masks are being conserved for staff.

Tam says because the COVID-19 pandemic is relatively new, the information gathered by scientists is coming in gradually, and it all needs to be considered.

WATCH | Dr. Theresa Tam talks about non-medical masks and scarves:

Clear guidance on non-medical masks and scarves

4 years ago
Duration 1:59
Featured VideoChief public health officer Dr. Theresa Tam speaks about how Canadians can safely use homemade masks or scarves, the evolution of thinking around masks and whether they actually help keep people safe.

"From a public health perspective, we need to take in evolution in information in science," she said. 

"We've been doing that, and these are the kinds of things that we discuss as a community … in terms of the public health and the chief medical officers."

Outside Canada, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control is also mulling widespread mask usage, while the Chinese Centre for Disease Control is encouraging other jurisdictions to follow its lead and implement the directive to use masks widely.

Shifting messages 'not unreasonable' given crisis

"We are learning more about this rapidly changing situation every day, so it's not unreasonable to expect the public health guidance to also change," said Joshua Greenberg, a professor of communications and journalism at Carleton University.

It can be difficult for public health agencies to balance aligning their messages across jurisdictions, while still being flexible enough to tailor those messages to different regions and changing circumstances, says Greenberg, who specializes in crisis communication.

"One of the big challenges facing public health officials in a crisis situation such as COVID-19 is first, how do you assess emerging evidence; and second, how do you engage with partners in Canada and around the world to co-ordinate your recommendations?"

Greenberg suggested one reason public health officials may be reluctant to fully endorse face masks is because there have already been "troubling" levels of non-compliance with public health directives, according to a recent survey.

"I think part of the reluctance to formally advise Canadians to begin wearing masks was a concern that it would dampen continuing efforts to keep them at home."

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