From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, we have regularly seen people choose to wear a variety of masks, from medical masks to cloth face coverings, in grocery stores and parks, on buses and sidewalks.
As we all look to protect our loved ones and ourselves, many have asked if this is the right thing to do.
What we know about the virus that causes COVID-19 is that it spreads from droplets when people who are infected with the virus cough, sneeze or expel droplets when they are in close contact (within one to two metres) with others. This is why physical distancing is so important and why self-isolation is necessary when we are ill or have recently travelled. This is also why washing our hands, covering our mouths when we cough, and not touching our face or eyes are the best actions we, as individuals, can take during the pandemic.
Equally important is the need to reserve medical masks and N95 respirators for our health-care-workers. It is their job to care for us when we are ill and having the correct protective equipment to do that is crucial for them and for all of us.
So how do non-medical cloth masks fit in? The Canadian public health special advisory committee has closely reviewed evidence from around the world to answer this question. We now know that some people can spread the virus when they have very mild symptoms or may be unaware they are infected.
As Dr. Theresa Tam, Canada's chief public health officer, has explained, a non-medical cloth mask or face covering can help you keep your own droplets out of the air and off surfaces. Choosing to wear such a face covering is like coughing or sneezing into a tissue or your sleeve.
A non-medical cloth mask or face covering, while helpful in containing your own droplets, will not protect you from COVID-19, nor is wearing one required of you if you can keep your safe distance from others. Moreover, using a cloth mask does not give you permission to disregard physical distancing and self-isolation orders. Indeed, these, along with respiratory etiquette and hand hygiene, remain the key proven measures to stop transmission.
Wearing a cloth mask or face covering is a matter of personal choice. It is another tool you can choose, particularly when maintaining that important safe distance can be a challenge.
Our most important advice remains the same: if you are sick, you should stay home. Wearing a cloth mask may contain your virus droplets, but it does not make it okay to go out. Maintain a safe distance from others when you are out, clean your hands regularly and avoid touching your face.
I applaud the creativity and ingenuity of many who have taken the time to make these cloth masks and it is encouraging to see the social connections that have been made by sharing patterns and creative ideas online.
If you choose to wear a non-medical cloth mask or face covering, I remind you of the importance of continuing to not touch your face when wearing it. This is often challenging especially for small children, and of course, be cautious when removing the cloth mask. Wash it regularly and do not share it with others.
We want everyone to stand united and stay strong. Every British Columbian has a part to play in flattening the curve. Let's all be safe, be calm, be kind and do the right thing.
Bonnie Henry is B.C.’s provincial health officer