While South Africa’s Department of Health now encourages the public to wear cloth face masks, there was previously confusion on the matter with some saying the masks do more harm than good.
Health Minister Dr Zweli Mkhize reiterated on Monday that the public should wear cloth face masks while surgical masks and N-95 respirators are reserved for healthcare workers.
Public Health Medicine Specialist at Stellenbosch University Dr Kerrin Begg looks into the science behind wearing masks and why South Africa decided to make wearing them a recommended practice.
Arguments against mass mask use:
People don’t use masks properly, either leaving their nose uncovered, or touching the mask during use or removal,which increases the risk of transfer of virus.
Surgical face masks need to be saved for health professionals, especially given global shortages of personal protective equipment
People find them uncomfortable and won’t want to wear them, defeating the point of mask-wearing.
There may be a stigma associated with face mask use, either because it identifies the wearer as contagious, or as a hoarder.
Arguments for the universal use of face-masks:
Any additional reduction of transmission would be helpful to slowing the spread.
Used together with other preventative measures, mask-wearing can assist to “flatten the curve”.
Wearing a face mask may provide protection where physical distancing is not possible due to socio-economic circumstances, such as informal settlements, and where hand-washing is difficult due to inadequate water supply and sanitation.
Face masks, specifically surgical masks, are critical in healthcare settings, because they protect the healthcare worker from infections. By the same logic should the government promote wearing face masks in community settings to prevent transmission?
Dr Begg says that when policy-makers debate whether or not to use an intervention, they need to look at the scientific evidence of it and consider the trade-offs between the benefits and harms.
“In the case of Covid-19, if the goal is to ‘flatten the curve’ as opposed to eradicating the virus, then partial protection afforded by face masks may be sufficient, despite low certainty evidence. Implementing mask-wearing could help when used in combination with other measures known to reduce transmission,” said Dr Begg.
Wearing a cloth face mask usage should be accompanied by strict rules of infection prevention such as not touching your face or mask while wearing it, followed by cleaning, disinfecting and disposing of your face mask.
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