Could wearing masks in public become the new norm?

22nd April 2020

People wearing surgical masks in public have become a common sight these days as the world battles an invisible enemy. Some experts have begun speculating that wearing masks could become the "new norm". They postulate that COVID-19 may be here to stay and, as a result, wearing masks in public will be pervasive.

A coronavirus expert, Dr. David Nabarro, believes that wearing surgical masks outdoors will be the new norm moving forward. In an interview with BBC Radio 4's "Today," Dr. Nabaro said communities across the globe will have to learn to accept and adopt this new reality.

This virus isn't going to go away and we don't know whether the people who've had the virus stay immune afterward and we don't know when we'll have a vaccine ... Yes, we will have to wear masks, yes, there will have to be more physical distancing, yes, we must protect the vulnerable.

Wearing masks could be part of a new reality

Before the coronavirus pandemic, surgical masks were intended for health workers and those who are sick. Currently, anyone can and should wear them. This includes individuals who exhibit coronavirus symptoms, all those around them, and people who inevitably come into close contact with others.

The WHO has not issued a guideline demanding everyone wear face masks. It is up to individuals to decide for themselves as a precaution, or governments to decide entire populations should wear face masks under certain conditions. Whether using a face mask, surgical mask, N95/FFP2 mask, N99/FFP3 mask or a simple nose and mouth covering fashioned of cloth, any protection against contracting the Coronavirus is better than none.

People should practice proper handwashing, social distancing, and wearing some type of breathing filter (from simple cloth coverings to fine particle filtering FFP3/N99 masks). If you are currently infected, a face mask will help limit the spread of infection to others. If you are not currently infected, a mask will help prevent you from being infected.

Masks offer protection and reassurance

There are many types of masks that can help prevent Coronavirus from spreading. Following are practical face masks which are listed in order of least-protection to highest-protection:

  • Simple cloth nose and mouth coverings, such as a scarfs or handkerchiefs
  • Surgical masks
  • FFP2/N95 masks
  • FFP3/N99 masks

Each has advantages, ranging from being inexpensive to being more effective at filtering particles. The type of mask you choose should be tailored to your personal use requirements. If you are walking outside and practicing social distancing, a simple scarf may suffice. If you are going into an enclosed space where it isn't possible to practice social distancing, a FFP3/N99 mask may suit your purpose.

Wearing surgical masks offers the public a sense of protection and reassurance. It is important to remember that wearing masks is not a guarantee you will not be infected. It is simply a precaution to limit your risk of infection.

Comparing mask types

Which type of mask should you use in different situations? Following are some practical guidelines you can follow to limit your risk of being infected.

Cloth face coverings

Cloth face coverings are the lowest level of protection, however, they can be useful in some situations. Simple mouth and nose coverings made of cut cloth, scarves or handkerchiefs can be useful in preventing the spread of coronavirus if you are sick, and protect you from contracting the virus if you are out in public during a sunny day with a breeze. Wear this type of breathing filter when you will not be going into enclosed places or placed in situations where social distancing is difficult to maintain.

Cloth face coverings are inexpensive and convenient and could be ideal in situations where you do not have better filtering mask available.

Surgical masks

Surgical masks the next level of protection. They are cheaper than other types of masks and less bulky than cloth face coverings. They tend to not fit as well as higher quality FFP2 or FFP3 masks, where potentially infected air is more likely to enter from the sides of the mask. They work well indoors when you are able to practice social distancing. However, it is important to remember that they only limit your risk of being infected, they are not guaranteed to stop all viruses.

These disposable and loose-fitting rectangular masks come with ties or elastic bands to keep them in place. At the top of the mask, there's a metal strip that could be pinched so that the surgical mask would fit the nose of the wearer. Surgical masks come with three-ply layers. The outer layer works by repelling body fluids like blood and water. The second or the middle layer will be responsible for filtering certain pathogens while the innermost or third layer will absorb sweat and moisture from the exhaled air.

FFP2/N95 masks

FFP2 masks, also called N95 masks (because they are able to filter 95% of smaller particles), are steps-up from cloth face coverings and surgical masks. While they provide a higher level of protection from contaminated moisture particles rushing into your lungs, they also tend to be more expensive. FFP2/N95 masks are appropriate when you will be indoors and within short distance of potentially infected individuals. N95 masks are more expensive than surgical masks, yet less expensive than FFP3/N99 masks.