July 14, 2020

Winnipeg
13° C, Partly cloudy

Full Forecast

Close this
Winnipeg Free Press

ABOVE THE FOLD

Subscribe

Can masks help stop COVID-19? Expert says Canadians should learn more about them

Using a face mask to help halt the spread of a virus isn't a novel concept around large swaths of the globe, but it remains fairly foreign throughout Canada and the United States.

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grow in North America, Dr. Lisa Bryski thinks that could pose a problem.

A woman and child wearing masks and full face shields pass a taped off play structure. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

A woman and child wearing masks and full face shields pass a taped off play structure. (Frank Gunn / The Canadian Press files)

While some of Canada's prominent public health officers say there's no need for healthy people to wear face masks, Bryski believes it might be a good idea to start making them more commonplace in our culture.

"We have this symbol, and our country hasn't decided collectively what it means to us yet," Bryski said from Winnipeg in a phone interview with The Canadian Press. "It's something we haven't had much experience with.

"Some people may consider a mask to mean: 'OK I'm safe' and they slack off on social distancing. Some people may consider it to say: 'Oh gee, I better stand back. This is reminding me.'

"So as a country we need to get a standard idea of what masks mean and how we should react to them. And that should become part of the education."

"Some people may consider a mask to mean: 'OK I'm safe' and they slack off on social distancing. Some people may consider it to say: 'Oh gee, I better stand back. This is reminding me.'" – Dr. Lisa Bryski

Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public heath officer, maintained in a press conference Monday that while face masks can cut down on the spread of the coronavirus when worn by someone already infected, it does little for healthy individuals.

Wearing a face mask, she added, can even have some averse affects, including giving people a "false sense of confidence" and increasing opportunities to touch their faces when adjusting or taking masks off.

"Even in a hospital setting, we find that it's removing personal protective equipment that can actually lead to infections," Tam said. "So if people try to use these measures they have to be really, really careful and wash their hands, absolutely that's the key."

Bryski, who's also a fiction writer, briefly retired from her career as an emergency physician in December but kept her medical licence active. She returned to practising in January as COVID-19 was wreaking havoc in Asia.

Bryski said seeing how countries like Hong Kong and South Korea handled their own coronavirus outbreaks — what she called a "multi-pronged approach" — gives her confidence that the widespread use of masks could work in Canada and the U.S.

"We only have three months experience with this virus. We've seen what can help in other countries, we've seen what can be devastating to other countries," she said. "Masks are a controversial thing right now in our country because we're trying to preserve a resource.

"There's worry that people will buy all the masks that are necessary for health care workers, and there's a risk to using masks in an inappropriate way that will put their own safety and the safety of others around them at risk."

"Even in a hospital setting, we find that it's removing personal protective equipment that can actually lead to infections." – Dr. Theresa Tam

Dr. Kevin Coombs, an infectious disease expert and professor of medical microbiology at the University of Manitoba, doesn't think masks will help much in North America.

He also doesn't believe they had much of an impact on flattening the curve in other parts of the world.

A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks past the Emergency dept. of the Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver Monday, March 30, 2020. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

A woman wears a protective face mask as she walks past the Emergency dept. of the Vancouver General Hospital in Vancouver Monday, March 30, 2020. . THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward

"It's not the mask per se, it's other things like social distancing that's been beneficial," Coombs said. "The aspect of this that does come into effect is where someone might be expelling and breathing the virus out, the mask does slow it down.

"We're told right now to maintain social distancing of about six feet. That's because when we're normally breathing, the microscopic droplets that we all breathe out will travel about six feet before they fall to the ground. So in putting the mask on, that does reduce the velocity of the air that we breathe out and therefore any little droplets aren't going to travel as far."

The problem with reserving masks only for those who are symptomatic, is that people may be carrying the virus but showing no symptoms.

Because of that, Bryski said there's an argument to consider everybody as a potential spreader.

"That's why we have been going into isolation," she said.

"There's worry that people will buy all the masks that are necessary for health care workers, and there's a risk to using masks in an inappropriate way that will put their own safety and the safety of others around them at risk." – Dr. Lisa Bryski

Coombs said that could be a reason to amp up protection, but he added that the coronavirus particles are small enough to be able to push through the kinds of masks available to the general public.

As other countries adopt more widespread use of face masks — Austria announced Monday that masks would be mandatory when shopping in grocery stores — Bryski said Canadians should be prepared in case similar measures are put into place here.

"As a group, we as Canadians need to bump up our education on this issue," she said. "What are our own attitudes when we see a mask or when we wear a mask? Does it affect how we interact with the environment and each other? Can we keep safety precautions going just as strong when we have that mask on?

"I think we need to become a country that is not only well versed on proper hand-washing techniques and proper ways of physical distancing, but we also need to be well-versed on the use of masks.

"It's a skill that may become important for Canada. It may become very important to Canada in the long run."

This report by The Canadian Press was first published March 31, 2020.

Your support has enabled us to provide free access to stories about COVID-19 because we believe everyone deserves trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

Our readership has contributed additional funding to give Free Press online subscriptions to those that can’t afford one in these extraordinary times — giving new readers the opportunity to see beyond the headlines and connect with other stories about their community.

To those who have made donations, thank you.

To those able to give and share our journalism with others, please Pay it Forward.

The Free Press has shared COVID-19 stories free of charge because we believe everyone deserves access to trusted and critical information during the pandemic.

While we stand by this decision, it has undoubtedly affected our bottom line.

After nearly 150 years of reporting on our city, we don’t want to stop any time soon. With your support, we’ll be able to forge ahead with our journalistic mission.

If you believe in an independent, transparent, and democratic press, please consider subscribing today.

We understand that some readers cannot afford a subscription during these difficult times and invite them to apply for a free digital subscription through our Pay it Forward program.

The Free Press will close this commenting platform at noon on July 14.

We want to thank those who have shared their views over the years as part of this reader engagement initiative.

In the coming weeks, the Free Press will announce new opportunities for readers to share their thoughts and to engage with our staff and each other.

You can comment on most stories on The Winnipeg Free Press website. You can also agree or disagree with other comments. All you need to do is be a Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscriber to join the conversation and give your feedback.

Have Your Say

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press print or digital subscribers only. why?

Have Your Say

Comments are open to The Winnipeg Free Press Subscribers only. why?

By submitting your comment, you agree to abide by our Community Standards and Moderation Policy. These guidelines were revised effective February 27, 2019. Have a question about our comment forum? Check our frequently asked questions.