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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.
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.
"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.
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