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Should we be wearing face masks in public during the coronavirus pandemic? Can a cloth mask protect you against COVID-19?

by May 18, 2020

ABC Health & Wellbeing / By health reporter Olivia Willis and technology reporter Ariel Bogle
Posted 9th April 2020, updated 9th April 2020

Four emoji faces wearing facemasks.

We’re staying at home and washing our hands, but should we wear a face mask when we go to the supermarket?

This is a common question from the ABC audience, while YouTube is awash in DIY-mask videos and the subject has become a focus for misinformation and even conspiracy theories online.

We’ll try to sort fact from fiction and provide some practical advice about face masks in Australia.

Have we been ordered to wear masks in Australia?
While some social media posts claim otherwise, at this point the Australian Government has not recommended all Australians wear face masks

The official advice remains that you only need to wear a mask if you are sick with COVID-19 symptoms, or if you are looking after someone who may have COVID-19.

If you are well, according to the Department of Health, you do not need to wear a face mask.

The most effective way to protect yourself and others against COVID-19 is to frequently and thoroughly wash your hands, cover your coughs and sneezes, and maintain a distance of at least 1.5 metres from others.

Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.

What do masks do?

Face masks are used primarily by people in the community to prevent sick people from spreading infection.

COVID-19 is mostly spread via respiratory droplets — the little secretions we generate when we sneeze or cough — and face masks can help to catch some of these fluid splashes.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently updated its guidelines to recommend all Americans wear cloth or fabric face coverings when they’re in a public place.

This is to reduce the spread of infection by asymptomatic people (meaning they’re sick with COVID-19 but show no symptoms), according to Abrar Chughtai, an infectious disease epidemiologist at the University of New South Wales.

“Those asymptomatic cases can transmit infection, so due to that reason, the CDC is recommending everyone use masks, because … we don’t know who is sick and who is healthy,” Dr Chughtai said.

While there are likely to be asymptomatic cases in Australia, Dr Chughtai said community transmission levels were still “very low” (especially compared to the US), meaning widespread face mask use isn’t necessary.

“If the number of cases surge here at some stage, like in the US or China, probably then the Australian Government would also recommend everyone use masks,” he said.

Is wearing a mask enough to protect me against COVID-19?


Associate professor Craig Lockwood at the University of Adelaide’s Joanna Briggs Institute said if people in the community did wear face masks, they must think of “masks, plus”.

Research shows protection from COVID-19 requires social distancing and practising regular hand hygiene.

Not to mention, you need a mask that fits, that provides good filtration, and you must know how to take it on and off without accidental contamination.

How to remove it only touching the mask’s strings, for example, and remember to wash your hands before putting it on and after taking it off.

“If people just wear a mask and think ‘ok I’m alright now, I’m wearing a mask’, they’re wrong,” he said.

Is any mask a good mask?

Not all masks are created equal.

To begin with, there are two main types of medical-grade masks: surgical masks and respirators.

Surgical masks — the ones you typically see in public — are disposable and loose-fitting, and create a physical barrier between the mouth of the wearer and their immediate environment.

They also help to protect the wearer against large droplets and splashes of fluid from others.

Respirators (such as the P2 masks recommended for bushfire smoke) also protect against large droplets, however, they reduce the wearer’s exposure to much smaller particles, including aerosols.

To effectively wear any kind of mask, it must fit snug around the face and mouth, Dr Lockwood said.

Coronavirus questions answered
An illustration of a cell on an orange background with the word ‘coronacast’ overlayed.
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.

Read more
The disposable surgical masks available at pharmacies may have good filtration properties, but they are unlikely to fit tightly like a respirator.

The material structure of a mask is also a factor in its effectiveness. A proper surgical face mask has a multi-layered barrier, for example.

Dr Lockwood described it as a “three-dimensional maze” that airborne particles must weave through before they can reach the nose or mouth.

Homemade masks are not tested or standardised, so may not have that same structure.

But Dr Chughtai said cloth masks could be a solution in countries where supplies of medical grade masks had to be reserved for healthcare workers.

“Cloth masks provide less protection compared to medical masks, but they still provide some protection,” he said.

Is it OK to make a mask at home?

Many ABC readers have asked whether they should make masks at home, but it’s not so simple.

As mentioned above, surgical masks have a maze-like structure that may be difficult for people to recreate.

A doubled-over tea towel could provide filtration, for example, but it would also be hard to breathe through.

“You have to breathe in and out harder, and that causes more air flow around the sides of a homemade mask,” Dr Lockwood said.

After all, one major problem with homemade masks is the fit.

Have you seen something about coronavirus that doesn’t seem right?
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The benefit of a N95 mask is not just its filtration, but how closely it hugs the face.

“It’s got a good seal all the way around the mouth and nose, and that’s the extra bit that makes it effective compared to a homemade mask,” he said.

And while a DIY cloth mask may provide some filtration, it may not prevent the accumulation of moisture.

“Once it becomes permeable due to moisture, it loses a lot of its effectiveness,” Dr Lockwood said.

When it comes to fashioning face masks out of fabrics, Dr Chughtai said cotton blends (like cotton–polyester) are probably better than pure cotton.

But, he said, they have to be used very carefully, changed frequently (after single use or whenever they got wet), and ideally made out of multi-layered, non-porous fabrics.

Does washing a mask work?

Spraying the outside of a surgical mask with disinfectant may reduce its protective properties and make it less effective, Dr Lockwood said.

“Surgical masks are designed to be hydrophobic or repel liquid.”

Cloth or homemade masks need to be washed after every use, Dr Chughtai said.

“Don’t touch the outer surface of the mask, remove the mask from the strings, and then put it in a bag before cleaning, or directly put it into the laundry,” he added.

Can single-use masks be ‘quarantined’ and reused?

A lot of protective medical wear is designed to be disposable.

Even six hours is considered an extended lifespan for a surgical mask, according to Dr Lockwood.

“As soon as someone touches the outside of their mask, then their hands are contaminated as well,” he said.

As for quarantining, there is no evidence putting a mask in a cupboard for 14 days would eradicate the presence of the virus.

“The virus seems to be able to survive quite well on different fabrics for seven or more days, and that end point is not yet fully known,” Dr Lockwood said.

Are we being told to not wear masks to keep them for medical workers?

There is currently a worldwide shortage of face masks, and in Australia, healthcare workers are under increasing pressure due to limited supplies.

It is important medical-grade masks and other personal protective equipment are preserved for healthcare workers who face a much higher risk of being exposed to COVID-19 and becoming ill.

However, limited supplies are not the only reason healthy members of the general public are not advised to wear masks, according to the WHO.

WHO’s epidemic chief Mike Ryan recently said there was no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the general population has any particular benefit.

“In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite,” he said, noting there are risks posed by improperly fitted masks or improperly putting one on or taking one off.

NSW coronavirus social-distancing rules introduced on public transport as authorities confirm one new death

by May 18, 2020

Busy train stations in NSW could be closed and a maximum of 12 people will be allowed on busses under new coronavirus social-distancing rules introduced by the State Government.

Key points:
Health authorities in NSW confirmed one new coronavirus fatality last night
It takes Australia’s death toll to 99
Sydney siders are being warned to stay off public transport at peak periods due to the virus
NSW Premier Gladys Berejiklian said, despite a massive reduction in patronage amid the coronavirus pandemic, Sydney’s public transport network was already at capacity in peak periods, when social-distancing was taken into account.

On Friday, it’s estimated about 570,000 commuters had used public transport in the Harbour City — down from the usual 2.2 million daily users pre-pandemic.

But as the state’s coronavirus shutdown is eased, the number of people on busses, trains, light rail, metros and ferries is increasing.

In response, the State Government announced it would cap the number of people permitted on the network at any one time.

A maximum of 12 people will be allowed on busses, while only 32 passengers will be allowed on each train carriage.

Ferries will be allowed to carry 45 commuters at a time.

Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.
NSW Transport Minister Andrew Constance said he would like people to “self-regulate first and foremost”, but that transport police would also be enforcing the new caps.

“In terms of policing measures that we can put in place, we do have the capacity to look at the numbers of people who are on train platforms and entering stations,” he said.

“If we have to close the station for 15 to 20 minutes, we got that option.”

Mr Constance warned busses which were at capacity would drive past stops with waiting passengers.

The new restrictions come as health authorities in NSW confirmed one new coronavirus death, taking Australia’s total to 99.

NSW chief health officer Kerry Chant said the man in his 60s had underlying health conditions and died in hospital.

She said the man was a close contact of a known case.

In the 24 hours to 8:00pm yesterday NSW confirmed one new coronavirus case — a returning overseas traveller — from almost 6,000 tests.

A total of 48 people have died from coronavirus in NSW.

How fast is coronavirus growing around the world?

Charted growth in key countries, on a logarithmic scale.

This chart uses a logarithmic scale to highlight coronavirus growth rates. Read our explainer to understand what that means — and how COVID-19 cases are spreading around the world.

Meanwhile, Anglicare chief executive Grant Millard said if he had his time again, he would have insisted residents at Newmarch House with coronavirus be treated in hospital.

The Western Sydney nursing home has been the centre of a COVID-19 cluster, with 71 cases and 18 deaths.

Mr Millard said the decision to care for infected residents inside the home was made to try and contain the spread of the virus, and was taken after consultation with NSW Health and Federal Aged Care Minister Richard Colbeck.

He defended the medical care given to residents inside the facility, but said “in hindsight” hospital care would have been better.

“Infection control practices … it’s a sort of a bread and butter business in a hospital setting, trying to do that in a residential aged care setting is complex,” he said.

Dr Chant said there were about 100 people being treated for COVID-19 by NSW Health.


How to keep your home clean and free from Coronavirus

by May 18, 2020

As households prepare to bunker down across Australia, attention has turned to the best ways of protecting homes from coronavirus.

Key points:
Households are a new frontier in the fight against coronavirus
Experts advise detergent and disinfectant are needed to clean surfaces
They say to target high traffic areas like doorknobs, handles and benches
Health experts have recommended a series of practical steps for maintaining good hygiene at home.

UNSW virologist Dr Sacha Stelzer-Braid is confident households can minimise their exposure if the right procedures are followed.

How do I stop COVID-19 spreading to my home?
Take off your shoes at the front door.
“We just need to be really quite vigilant and strict,” she said.

“It’s not a bad idea to take your shoes off before you enter the house, especially for children who like to jump on beds,” she said.

A woman washing her hands.

Hand washing is one of the key ways to prevent bringing coronavirus home.(ABC Radio Brisbane: Jessica Hinchliffe)
“Definitely don’t put your shoes anywhere you would touch with your hands like your coffee table.”

Wipe down items brought into the house.
Non-porous items like takeaway containers can be wiped down with detergent or soapy water and fresh produce should be washed.

What the experts are saying about coronavirus:
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Immunity passports might create a perverse incentive for individuals to seek out infection
Wash your hands, thoroughly.
Once inside, a thorough hand wash with warm soapy water for at least 20 seconds is essential.

“While the risk of transmission from anything you buy at the shops is low it’s still a good idea. We can’t hand-wash enough right now,” Dr Stelzer-Braid said.

What cleaning products work best?
Hand sanitisers and disinfectants are not enough.
Scientists have shown that COVID-19 can survive outside the body on plastic and stainless steel surfaces for up to 72 hours.

Coronavirus questions answered
An illustration of a cell on an orange background with the word ‘coronacast’ overlayed.
Breaking down the latest news and research to understand how the world is living through an epidemic, this is the ABC’s Coronacast podcast.

Read more
Professor Brett Mitchell told ABC Radio Sydney that highly sought after products like hand sanitiser and disinfectant sprays were not enough to kill the virus on their own.

“Disinfectants don’t work by just splashing them about,” Professor Mitchell said.

“They can’t break through dirt and organic material that’s left on surfaces, so you need to clean that first and then use the disinfectant.”

Detergents are the key to breaking down the layers of dirt and dust to allow disinfectants to work.

Target ‘high-touch’ surfaces

A man wipes a bench top wearing gloves.

High traffic surfaces should be wiped down with disinfectant and detergent.(ABC Radio Sydney: Matt Bamford)
Wipe down doorknobs, switches, and mobile phones twice a day with detergent.
As the virus is commonly transferred by hand-to-face touching, experts recommend wiping down all surfaces that are regularly handled.

Cleaning house
If you just want to clean, then hot, soapy water is generally enough
If you want to disinfect, clean first, then disinfect with the least toxic, most biodegradable product that does the job
Make sure that whichever product you use, you don’t damage the surface you’re working on
Different advice might apply if there’s someone at home with an open wound or a poor immune system
Source: Does vinegar really kill household germs?

Dr Stelzer-Braid said those in a healthy household should be wiping down high-touch surfaces at least twice a day.

Diluted bleach and products with an

 content above 70 per cent are also effective products.

What if someone falls ill?
Quarantine sick house members for 14 days, increase cleaning.
If a member of the house is feeling unwell, Professor Mitchell said cleaning around areas they frequented needed to be more thorough.

“Think about cleaning the area within their room a little more often, using disinfectant after washing hands, and giving the taps a clean,” he said.

Should a member of the household show symptoms of COVID-19, Dr Stelzer-Braid said they should be quarantined to one room, preferably with their own bathroom.

Contact with others should be at a minimum for a fortnight and cleaning should increase to several times a day.

If possible, clothes and bed sheets — handled with gloves and surgical masks — should be washed more frequently to minimise the risk of transmission.

“It’s also always a good idea to try to flush clean air through the house so open the windows and doors,” Dr Stelzer-Braid said.

Keep clothing, cutlery separate
The clothing and cutlery used by an infected person can also spread the virus so they should be kept separate.

“A dishwasher is great, it will kill the virus. But if you don’t have one use hot water — as hot as you can handle it,” she said.

A sign in front of empty shelves at a supermarket

Disinfectants like hand sanitiser have been in high demand but can be less effective on dirty surfaces.(ABC Radio Adelaide: Spence Denny)
Coronavirus update: Follow all the latest news in our daily wrap.
Technique matters
Wiping in an ‘S’ shaped pattern prevents re-contamination and will ensure the surface area is well-covered.
Cleaning techniques can also make a difference to the risk of infection.

Disposable gloves should also be worn.

Dr Stelzer-Braid said the key was not waiting until it was too late to implement good habits.

“Getting on top of it early and having a good routine is really important,” she said.

“If [infection] does happen, and it probably will happen to someone in the household, then it’s an easier transition.”

While these measures might not guarantee freedom from infection, Dr Stelzer-Braid said they help ensure the chances of the virus entering a home are minimised.

The Most Effective Ways to Kill Coronavirus in Your Home

by May 14, 2020

By Robert Preidt
HealthDay Reporter
WEDNESDAY, March 18, 2020 (HealthDay News) — A number of home cleaning supplies may be effective against the new coronavirus, experts say.

“Not many scientific studies have asked which are the most effective disinfecting agents to use against [the new coronavirus] because it was discovered so recently,” said Siobain Duffy, an associate professor of ecology at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J., with expertise in emerging viruses. “So scientists are assuming that what works against other coronaviruses can work against this one.”

But each disinfecting chemical has specific instructions, another expert in microbial risk assessment pointed out.

“An important general rule is that you shouldn’t immediately wipe a cleaning solution off as soon as you’ve applied it to a surface. Let it sit there long enough to kill viruses first,” Donald Schaffner said in a university news release. He’s a professor and food microbiologist at Rutgers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommends daily disinfection of often-touched surfaces such as tables, doorknobs, light switches, counter tops, handles, desks, phones, keyboards, toilets, faucets and sinks, as well as the use of detergent or soap and water on dirty surfaces prior to disinfection.

If someone in your household has flu-like symptoms, consider regularly disinfecting objects in your home, since the new coronavirus has been shown to survive for 16 hours on plastics.

Never use different cleaning agents at the same time. Some household chemicals, if mixed, can create dangerous and poisonous gases.

If you use bleach, use one-quarter cup of bleach per 1 gallon of cold water, but be sure to follow directions on the product label. Make the diluted bleach solution as needed and use within 24 hours, as its disinfecting power fades with time, Duffy and Schaffner said.

Nonporous items like plastic toys can be dipped in bleach for 30 seconds. Household surfaces that won’t be damaged by bleach should get 10 or more minutes of exposure.

Bleach solutions are hard on the skin, so don’t use them as a substitute for hand-washing and/or hand sanitizer.

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