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Can I clean and reuse my N95 mask? Your COVID-19 questions answered

We're breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we’ll answer as many as we can. We’ll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we’re also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network.  

From reusing N95 masks, to how the virus affects infants, here's what you’re asking us today

An N95 mask, pictured above, is a disposable respirator used in health-care settings as well as industrial and construction sites. According to Health Canada, most masks have a limited shelf life. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

The information in this article was current at the time of publishing, but guidelines and advice can change quickly. Check with your local public health unit for the most-current guidance, and find the latest COVID-19 news on our website.

We're breaking down what you need to know about the pandemic by answering your questions. You can send us your questions via email at COVID@cbc.ca and we'll answer as many as we can. We'll publish a selection of answers every weekday on our website, and we're also putting some of your questions to the experts on the air during The National and News Network

So far we've received thousands of emails from all corners of the country. Your questions have surprised us, stumped us and got us thinking, including a number of questions about how the virus affects infants and reusing N95 masks, including this question from Diane H.

Is it safe to clean and reuse an N95 mask? 

There are many different types of masks including the N95, which is a disposable respirator used in health care settings as well as industrial and construction sites. According to Health Canada, most masks have a limited shelf life.

Manitoba researchers tell CBC News they may have found a way to safely decontaminate and reuse some types of medical masks to make them safe for reuse by frontline workers. These trial techniques involved autoclaves which use pressure and steam to sterilize medical devices.  These machines are still being tested by researchers in hospitals to see if they can be used on N95 masks, but at the moment there is no safe, proven method to sterilize and reuse them at home. 

Canada's chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, cautions the supply of medical-grade masks must be preserved for health system workers and those looking after patients infected with COVID-19.

"The effectiveness of the use of non-medical masks hasn't really been well demonstrated," Tam said. "But I think that there may not be any harm in wearing it, if one uses it properly."

Until recently, the federal government was saying that masks are unnecessary for those not exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms and that non-medical masks, or poorly-fitted medical masks, won't filter out the small airborne particles carrying the virus.

You can find Health Canada's guidelines for homemade masks here. 

If you do want to make a homemade mask, Health Canada cautions they may not provide complete protection against virus-sized particles and could require frequent adjustment, which may increase how much you touch your face. 

Here's why experts suggest homemade masks won't protect you as well as frequent handwashing, and physical distancing.

Could you please talk about the use of Hydroxychloroquine as a treatment for COVID-19? I don't know what to believe. Are the Americans right? 

Many Canadians, including Suzanne, are wondering about the effectiveness of the drugs chloroquine, typically used to treat malaria, and hydroxychloroquine, prescribed for rheumatoid arthritis and lupus, in preventing or treating COVID-19. Both drugs have been touted by U.S. President Donald Trump and a French doctor as being useful in the fight against the coronavirus. 

According to Dr. David Juurlink, head of the division of Clinical Pharmacology and Toxicology at Sunnybrook Health Sciences Centre in Toronto, it's still far too early to determine the usefulness of these drugs in relation to this virus. "Right now, we don't know if these drugs offer any value in the treatment of COVID-19. There have been a few small studies, most of them from China, but they haven't been very rigorous, and it's fair to say the available data are conflicting and not definitive," he says. 

He also echoes Dr. Yves Robert, secretary of the Collège des Médecins in Quebec who recently told CBC's Daybreak that while multi-centre studies in Canada are looking to answer the question definitively, "are these drugs useful against the virus?" at the moment they are not recommended as a first-line of treatment.

"Until we have more evidence, I would not recommend these drugs for prevention because they have some side effects that, while uncommon, can be very serious," said Juurlink. 

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, has also cautioned against using the drugs. "My message is that you should not take medication without the scientific evidence," Tam said. "It can be quite dangerous. These drugs are not without side-effects. In fact, there are quite significant side-effects."

Can my friend and I both use my home gym if we clean it between uses?

Questions about physical distancing continue to flood our inbox including this email from Roger J. His question is a little tricky, because Canadians are being told to stay home as much as possible, except Roger's home gym is being used by someone outside his household.   

COVID-19 is a serious public health threat, and limiting our contact with others is an important way to slow the rate of new infections. Kate Mulligan, assistant professor at the Dalla Lana school of public health at the University of Toronto says, "My advice to people is take this as literally and serious and strictly as you can reasonably in your life and avoid those contacts that are not essential." 

That includes sharing intimate spaces like the gym with those outside your household. 

Here are answers to more questions about physical distancing.

In theory, if everyone self isolated completely for 14 days would the virus die off and be gone?

We are also receiving a lot of questions about self-isolation, including this email from Ron S. who wonders whether the virus is gone after 14 days. It's difficult to predict what would happen if everyone self-isolated for 14 days, but we do know that self-isolation is an important way to curb new infections.

Self-isolation is the strictest form of physical distancing, basically you can't leave your home at all if you're showing signs of: 

  • Cold or flu symptoms.

  • Have been diagnosed with COVID-19.

  • Have just returned to Canada from another country. 

  • Have been in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with the illness.

And more severe measures may also be advised for people at higher risk, such as seniors and people with chronic health conditions. Infectious disease specialist Dr. Isaac Bogoch says, "If someone's going to have the infection it's going to happen within that 14 day period of time." But he cautions, if you develop any symptoms such as a cough, fever, or shortness of breath no matter how mild, you need to dial your local public health number, and seek medical advice from a professional.

Here is more information about what to do if you think you have COVID-19.

How does the virus affect children under one year old?

At least two infants are believed to have died as a result of COVID-19 in the U.S. 

Current data suggests that Canadians younger than 40 represent one third of all reported cases. 

Those aged 20 to 30 made up 29 per cent of the reported cases and four per cent are under 19. 

But how COVID-19 affects infants is still unclear.

"We don't know that much," said Dr. Srinivas Murthy, infectious disease specialist at B.C. Children's Hospital. "There haven't been too many cases reported in hospitals in Canada."

For newborns, Health Canada suggests mothers breastfeed if possible, because it lowers the baby's risk of infection and illness. Other recommendations include hand-washing and physical distancing with your baby.  You can read more tips here.

Murthy says they "still need a lot of testing" in order to understand the impact of COVID-19 on infants. 

You can watch his full answer and more from The National here:

COVID-19: What about kids traveling between homes of separated parents?

2 years ago
Duration 3:44
Doctors answer your questions about the coronavirus including what is recommended for kids travelling between houses of separated parents.

Friday we answered questions about eligibility for financial help and whether the virus can live in your pet's fur. Read here.

Keep your questions coming by emailing us at COVID@cbc.ca.

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