Women BD Desk: People around the world are buying up protective face masks in hopes of keeping the new virus from China at bay. Some companies have required them for employees.
But do the masks work? It depends.
All viruses are small enough to get through a typical strap-on medical mask, but the germs don’t generally spread through the air one at a time, said Dr Mark Denison of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in Nashville. Denison studies SARS and MERS, which are coronaviruses, the same family as the new virus.
Instead, viruses ride from person to person on droplets from a sneeze or cough. Those droplets land on hands and other surfaces, where they are touched by others, who then touch their own eyes, noses or mouths.
Masks can block large droplets from a sneeze or cough. That means they have some value, Denison said.
Also, someone in a mask can’t touch their own nose and mouth. That can prevent the wearer from picking up germs left on surfaces by someone who is sick, he said.
Masks are “a very sensible precaution” while scientists work to study exactly how the new virus is transmitted, said University of Oxford researcher Trudie Lang.
None of this, however, is based on rigorous research. Nobody has compared groups of masked and unmasked people by exposing them to the new germ, Denison said.
A 2017 review of studies in health care workers suggested masks offer some protection against SARS, but the authors noted “existing evidence is sparse and findings are inconsistent.”