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Explainer: What exactly is the latest advice on face masks and why you should wear them?

Dr Tony Holohan has said “we need to do better” in terms of the general public wearing face masks as recommended.

File photo. People wearing masks in Dublin city.
File photo. People wearing masks in Dublin city.
Image: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

AT A PRESS briefing last night, Dr Tony Holohan said he was struck by the number of people not wearing face masks while out shopping at the weekend.

“I did notice that the majority of people were not wearing masks, and it is our clear recommendation … that people in those settings should wear them,” he said.

The chief medical officer added that “I think we need to do better” when it came to following this advice.

What’s the current advice for the public on face masks?

Until mid-May, wearing face masks wasn’t formally part of the government’s advice on helping to mitigate the spread of Covid-19.

In March and April, the public was advised that good hand hygiene and social distancing were essential steps in preventing Covid-19 transmission. 

When it was introduced as new guidance, Dr Holohan said he was “concerned” the advice about face coverings could be “interpreted in a way by people that meant that maybe we don’t need to worry about washing our hands as much or, if we wear a face covering, we can we can disregard the requirement in terms of social distancing – that is not the case”.

“So this is an additional hygiene measure. It’s not a magic bullet for this disease, and that has to be understood,” Holohan said.

The current advice is that wearing a cloth face covering is recommended in situations where it is difficult to practice social distancing, for example, in shops or on busy public transport.

Wearing one may help prevent people who do not know they have the virus from spreading it to others. It does so by helping to reduce the spread of respiratory droplets from someone infected with Covid-19. 

Alongside wearing a face covering, however, it is of vital importance you still follow the other public health guidance – washing your hands properly and often, covering your mouth and nose with a tissue or sleeve when you cough or sneeze, not touching your eyes, nose or mouth if your hands are not clean and two-metre social distancing.

So it’s not mandatory?

No, it’s not.

It’s just – as Dr Holohan says – the strong guidance from public health officials. 

Other countries, such as Germany, France and Spain made the wearing of face masks mandatory as they began to ease lockdown measures.

Passengers on public transport in England could face fines from next week if they don’t wear mandatory face coverings when travelling.

However, despite it not being compulsory here, the need for people to wear them in the recommended situations has been reiterated a number of times in recent weeks.

Health Minister Simon Harris has said he’s a “little bit concerned” about the uptake of mask-wearing among the public, and “for those of us who can wear one, we really should”.  

This will include public transport and in shops as the country re-opens in the next few weeks. If you’re going to be in these kinds of spaces, the advice is clear – you should wear a face covering.

This afternoon, the Oireachtas Committee on Covid-19 heard how the guidance on wearing masks for over-60s would also be reviewed this week.

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What’s the World Health Organization saying?

Just last week, the WHO changed its advice on face masks. 

Up to the beginning of June, its advice had been for face masks to be worn by those who have symptoms and by those caring for them. 

However, now it recommends that they should be worn by the all people in situations where social distancing is not possible to help to stop the spread of coronavirus.

It said there is a lack of “high quality scientific evidence” on the matter, but pointed out

However, there are some settings in which it may not be possible to keep physical distancing and the use of a mask could be helpful to provide a barrier to limit the spread of potentially infectious droplets from someone who is infected. In addition, there is some evidence which suggests that some infected people without showing symptoms may be able to transmit the virus others.
For this reason, WHO advises that governments should encourage the use of non-medical fabric masks, which can act as a barrier to prevent the spread of the virus from the wearer to others where there are many cases of Covid-19, for people in the general public where physical distancing of at least 1 metre is not possible – such as, on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.

Similarly to Dr Holohan here, WHO chief Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus stressed that face masks alone “will not protect you from Covid-19″ and that it must be combined with other measures such as good hand hygiene and social distancing. 

How do you wear a face mask properly then?

Source: Department of Health/YouTube

The HSE has made a video showing how to safely wear a face covering. It’s important to emphasise, if you don’t wear the face covering correctly it’ll offer little to no protection for you or others.

Here’s what the advice says: “Cloth face coverings are made from materials such as cotton, silk, or linen.

“You can buy them or make them at home using items such as scarfs, t-shirts, sweatshirts, or towels.

“A cloth face covering should cover the nose and go under the chin and:

  • fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face
  • be secured with ties or ear loops
  • include at least 2 layers of fabric
  • allow for breathing without restriction”

It also has some advice here on how to make a face covering. 

Source: Department of Health/YouTube

There are also a list of dos and don’ts when it comes to face masks, which you can see below.

Do:

  • clean your hands properly before you put it on
  • practise using it so you are comfortable putting it on and taking it off
  • make sure it is made from a fabric you are comfortable wearing
  • cover your mouth and nose with it and make sure there are no gaps between your cloth face covering
  • tie it securely
  • carry unused masks in a sealable clean waterproof bag(for example, a ziplock bag)
  • carry a second similar type bag to put used masks in

Don’t:

  • touch a mask or face covering while wearing it – if you do, clean your hands properly
  • use a damp or wet medical mask or reuse a medical mask
  • share masks
  • do not lower your mask to speak, eat and smoke or vape – if you need to uncover your nose or mouth take the mask off and put it in the bag for used masks
  • do not discard masks in public places.

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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