New Brunswick

When should you wear a mask? N.B.'s top doctor gives advice

As the situation with COVID-19 continues to evolve, so too does advice from medical professionals on how to stay safe. 

Mask-wearing should not replace hand washing or physical distancing, says Dr. Jennifer Russell

Dr. Russell says home-made masks can be made of cotton or quilting fabric, and there shouldn't be any gaps between the mask and your face. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

As COVID-19 spreads in Canada, the advice from medical professionals on how to stay safe has evolved. 

At first, Canadians were told to wash their hands and avoid large groups. Within weeks, they were locked down in states of emergency and told to keep their distance from anyone not in the same household. 

The federal message about masks has also changed. They're now considered reasonable in public settings such as public transit and grocery stores, where physical distancing can be hard to maintain.

But health officials urge people to wear non-medical masks, such as bandanas, scarves and home-made masks, and to  save the medical supply of surgical masks and N95 masks for health-care workers.

There's a lot of confusion about face masks now. Here are your top questions answered by chief medical officer of health Dr. Jennifer Russell.  4:39

In New Brunswick, the advice has shifted too. 

The province's chief medical officer of health, Dr. Jennifer Russell, initially said that only health-care workers needed to wear masks.

Now she is now matching federal advice and suggests masks may be a handy tool for controlling the spread of COVID-19.

N95 masks should be used by healthcare workers only. They come in different sizes to make sure the barrier is tight. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

"We are suggesting that if you are going to wear a face covering that it be the homemade kind," Russell said.

The masks aren't for your protection, explained Russell, but for the protection of others, and to make sure your droplets aren't getting on other people.

"This does not replace hand hygiene and it doesn't replace social distancing," she said.

Mask-wearing should not replace hand-washing, says Russell. You should also wash your hands before donning your home-made mask and after removing it. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Russell said mask-wearing can help combat community spread of COVID-19.

"We do understand that there is a risk of transmission in those settings," she said.

"We don't believe that it's the driving force of the transmission, but we know we can play a part and this is just one of those precautionary pieces of advice that we're giving people."

"Arming people with knowledge, arming people with information so they can take good proper steps to protect themselves and others … is really important."

When should you wear a mask? 

Russell suggests wearing a mask in public, especially in places where you can't properly maintain two metres of distance between yourself and others. 

"Running errands, grocery shopping," she said. 

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, you should stay home and self-isolate, call 811 or your doctor, and generally refrain from going out in public.

But if you have a slight cough, or seasonal allergies, a mask might help protect the spread of any germs or droplets. 

"If you're wearing a facial covering it means that if you do cough, not only do you have the protection of your elbow but it's going to be trapped in the fabric somewhat," she said.

What about at work?

As to whether you can and should wear a face covering at work, Russel said "that would be something that you'd have to work out with with your employer." 

If you can't maintain two metres of distance while at work, a face-mask might be a good tool to use.

But, Russell added, employers should also ensure social distancing i the workplace is happening, too.

What's the difference between medical and home-made masks? 

N95 masks and surgical masks are used by health-care workers who are on the front lines in hospitals around the world. 

N95 masks come in different sizes so as to provide the best barrier against germs.They sometimes come with a filter on the front, and are purpose-built to solely protect the user from small particles.

If you have a supply of surgical masks like these, Russell says there's nothing stopping you from using them, but she hopes people will consider donating them to the province. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

Surgical masks are also used in lower-risk health-care settings. They are typically made with three layers of fabric to filter any germs or larger respiratory particles, and they are disposable.

N95 masks are in high demand around the world, said Russell, so it's important to leave them for healthcare workers. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

These are not the masks the public should be buying or wearing though, said Russell.

N95 masks are in high demand, and stockpiles in hospitals around the world are getting low, which is why it's so important to save these masks for nurses and doctors. 

Russell said even if you have a pre-existing medical condition, don't buy a medical mask. Distancing, isolation, and hand-washing measures are the best way to keep yourself safe. 

"People who are wearing the homemade facial coverings, they are doing their part in terms of protecting those people who are at higher risk," she said.

Where can you get one? 

Russell said non-medical masks can be made at home, and she pointed to resources from the Centers for Disease Control. Some people have even shared mask-making patterns on Pinterest, said Russell.

"Whatever pattern you choose, however you decide to make it, whether it's a sewn one or one that's not sewn, there have to be no gaps around your face. So when it is fitted onto your face there can't be any big gaps," she said.

Some sewers suggest using quilting fabric or fabric in a double-layer to make the masks, but you can even use an old T-shirt, according to the CDC.

Masks made at home should be large enough to cover your mouth and nose, and should have no gaps on the sides. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

The mask should also be comfortable, said Russell, otherwise you won't want to wear it. It should also be large enough to cover both your nose and mouth. 

If you currently have a stock of surgical masks, Russell said there's nothing stopping you from using them, but would rather see people donate them to the province's stockpile. 

More information around how exactly to donate to that stockpile will be coming out very soon, said Russell.  

How do you use it? 

The mask should fit comfortably on your face and around your ears and should have no visible gaps.

"Wash your hands when you put it on, and wash your hands when you take it off," said Russell.

Masks like this one can be worn in public places where maintaining two metres of distance is difficult, like on public transit or in a grocery store. (Mike Heenan/CBC)

It's also important to wash the mask every day, or else germs will just stay on the fabric. 

"I would not want people to just wear these facial coverings without making sure that they're doing proper hand hygiene and actually washing the material that the mask is made of," she said.

As for how to clean the masks, hot, soapy water should do the trick, but other cleaning advice is available online. 

"If you washed it in hot soapy water at a good high temperature that would suffice," Russell said. "But there could be other cleaning advice as well that you would find resources for."

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