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How useful are masks in tackling coronavirus outbreak?

Maitri Porecha New Delhi | Updated on March 15, 2020

With 84 confirmed cases of novel coronavirus and two deaths, a frenzy has broken out across the country for donning face masks to protect oneself from getting infected.

Masks are flying off shelves of chemist stores and hawkers alike at lightening speed.

But are masks any useful when worn by healthy persons? Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) says they are not.

There are the simple disposable masks, which are flat pleated with woven fabric that covers the nose and the mouth, affixed behind with straps or elastic fasteners. And then there are the slightly advanced N-95 type, which are conical or duck bill shaped with or without valves that fit in the contour of face over the nose and mouth, but are costlier. And then there are the very prominently being sold cloth masks on footpaths.

COVID – 19 is spread by an infected person with COVID coughing and the droplets from his cough infecting others in close vicinity (less than 1 metre).

MoHFW guidelines for masks

MoHFW has released guidelines stating that persons having no symptoms are not to use mask. “Medical masks should not be used by healthy persons who are not having any symptoms because it create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as washing of hands,” MoHFW has stated.

It has also stated that there is no scientific evidence to show health benefit of using masks for non-sick persons in the community. In fact erroneous use of masks or continuous use of a disposable mask for longer than six hours or repeated use of same mask may actually increase risk of getting an infection. It also incurs unnecessary cost.

So when exactly should masks be used? Guidelines stated that three-layered disposable masks can be used by a person who develops cough or fever. “Use of medical three layer masks when ill, will prevent your infection from spreading to others. However you also need to wash your hands frequently to avoid spreading infection to others,” MoHFW says.

Also, while visiting a healthcare facility, caring for an ill person, close family contacts of such suspect, confirmed cases undergoing home care should also use Triple layer medical mask.

MoHFW says that a medical mask will remain effective, if properly worn, for 8 hours. “If it gets wet in between, it needs to be changed immediately,” the guidelines warn.

Touching the mask or letting it hang from the neck can be risky, emphasize the guidelines.

It is not advisable to leave loose masks behind on any surfaces such as desks or tables, as used mask should be considered as potentially infected. Used masks should either be buried deep in the ground or burnt off. “Masks used by patients, care givers, close contacts during home care should be disinfected using ordinary bleach solution (5 per cent) or sodium hypochlorite solution (1 per cent) and then disposed of either by burning or deep burial,” say the guidelines.

Frequent hand washing

Instead of creating a mask-buying frenzy, MoHFW has advised frequent hand washing with soap and water for 40 seconds. An alcohol based hand sanitizer with 70 per cent alcohol must be used for 20 seconds. If hands are dirty or soiled, do not use alcohol based hand sanitizer, but wash hands preferably with soap and water, it has stated.

It also states that while coughing or sneezing cover nose and mouth with handkerchief, paper tissue. If handkerchief or tissue paper is not available cough into the flexed elbow as also dispose of tissue immediately after use and wash hands.

Persons should also refrain from touching face, mouth, nose and eyes, stay at least a metre away from those coughing or sneezing and monitor one’s body temperature regularly.  

Published on March 14, 2020

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