Surgical Masks Won’t Protect You Against the Coronavirus


UPDATE (April 4, 2020): The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has updated its recommendations regarding the general public wearing face masks during the coronavirus outbreak and subsequent COVID-19 pandemic. While it still does not recommend wearing surgical masks or N-95 respirators, it now supports “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

The reasoning behind this new recommendation, the CDC website says, is because recent studies indicate that a high number of individuals with coronavirus are asymptomatic and that the virus can be transmitted to others before symptoms become apparent. By wearing a cloth mask, you add an extra layer of protection between yourself and others when you may be speaking, coughing, or sneezing.

It is important to note that wearing a mask does not erase the need to keep your distance from others. “It is critical to emphasize that maintaining six-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus,” the CDC website says.

This post originally appeared on February 4, 2020:

This week, the CDC confirmed the first case of person-to-person transmission of the coronavirus, which has already killed 170 people in China, where the virus originated. While the CDC says it expects more cases, including the potential for more person-to-person spread, experts are encouraging the general public to take evidence-based prevention measures — which doesn’t include wearing surgical masks.

According to Nancy Messonnier, director of the Center for the National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, the CDC doesn’t currently recommend the use of face masks for the general public.

“The virus is not currently spreading in the general community. While it is cold and flu season, we don’t routinely recommend the use of face masks by the public to prevent respiratory illness,” Messonnier stated in a telebriefing on January 30.

Instead, the CDC and other experts encourage the public to focus on more common practices — like handwashing and covering coughs — to prevent the spread of infection.

Why you don’t need to buy a surgical mask for coronavirus

Neha Nanda, medical director of infection prevention and antimicrobial stewardship at Keck Medicine of USC, says there are two major reasons not to rush out and buy a mask right now. First, the risk of contracting the coronavirus in the United States is currently low, assuming you’re not in direct contact with someone who may be infected.

Second, masks aren’t generally used for protecting yourself from an illness. “When we wear a mask, what we are doing is containing our secretions [to keep them] from getting to the person we are in contact with,” she says. “This is so the people who come close to you don’t get infected.”

Even if you’re physically near someone who might be infected with coronavirus, Nanda says you would have to be very close to catch it. “I would only wear the mask if I would be in proximity to another person in a small, closed room,” she says. “But you have to be very close to be infected. With the novel coronavirus, it’s within two meters.”

According to Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious disease physician at Stanford Health Care, masks can provide a basic barrier, but they’re not meant to be used for long periods of time.

“When you’re in public, the mask is only meant to be a simple barrier,” she says. “It will mostly keep you from inhaling large droplets for a short period, and keep you from touching your face, which is another way you inoculate organisms into your body.”