While several jurisdictions across Canada and the U.S. have made masks mandatory, resistance to wearing them has been arising, with erroneous claims about them being spread about. To clarify information about masks, the Georgia Straight spoke with Victoria-based Dr. Wayne Ghesquiere, a UBC clinical assistant professor and an infectious-diseases expert for Royal Jubilee Hospital, Victoria General Hospital, and the Vancouver Island Health Authority.
Confusion may have arisen when Canada’s chief public health officer, Dr. Theresa Tam, and provincial health officer Dr. Bonnie Henry changed course after stating during the pandemic’s early stages that mask-wearing wasn’t effective—they’ve since been advising people to wear a mask, particularly when physical distancing can’t be maintained. (Henry, however, has maintained her advice that while masks help to protect others from being infected, multiple layers of protection are most effective in reducing risk of transmission.)
By phone from Victoria, Ghesquiere explained that as we are still continuing to learn about the coronavirus, not everyone has all the answers.
“In healthcare, we can only give you the best advice of what we have today, not what might be there five to 10 years from now,” he said.
Ghesquiere said although Tam was seeking data from clinical trials to prove that masks prevent COVID-19, he believes the usefulness of masks boils down to “common sense”. A cloth mask isn’t as good as a surgical mask, he said, but it’s better than nothing at all.
“The high-tide mark would be N95; the low-tide mark would be nothing,” he said. “The mask will filter the viruses, the particles, the spit.”
The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends masks with three layers: an inner layer of absorbent material, such as cotton; a middle layer of nonwoven material, such as polypropylene; and an outer layer of nonabsorbent material, such as polyester or polyester blend. (Some cloth masks have inner pockets in which to insert filters.)
Unfortunately, antimaskers—whether fuelled by arguments about civil liberties or perhaps by issues such as fears of losing control over their bodies—have been circulating misinformation and creating confusion.
Two claims are that masks reduce oxygen intake or cause carbon-dioxide accumulation. Dr. Susy Hota, medical director of infection prevention and control at Toronto’s University Health Network, told CBC News on July 18 that there isn’t any scientific evidence for either of these assertions.
Ghesquiere said that for some individuals with chronic lung disease—such as cystic fibrosis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or asthma—“wearing a mask makes it a little more problematic for them to breathe”. However, he said the vast majority of people can wear masks without any issues. Henry has also stated that masks don’t cause hypoxia, a condition resulting from oxygen deprivation to tissues.
A related argument is that wearing a mask stresses the body, thereby weakening immune systems and making a person vulnerable to toxins, viruses, and bacteria trapped on the masks.
“That’s ridiculous,” Ghesquiere said of the claim, pointing out how doctors and nurses have been wearing masks for decades. (As well, people in some Asian countries customarily wear masks during cold/flu seasons.)
Another common argument against wearing masks is that the virus is tinier than the weave of most masks. However, Ghesquiere pointed out that the virus is carried in saliva or droplets.
“The virus isn’t by itself,” he said. “That’s why these cloth or paper masks will filter out the droplets.” (Some research, however, has shown that short-range aerosol transmission of the virus due to talking or exhalation, instead of coughing or sneezing droplets, may be possible; the WHO, in a July 9 briefing, acknowledged this possibility but said that it requires further investigation.)
He also agrees with Henry that masks don’t replace other measures, such as physical distancing and thorough handwashing.
Although Ghesquiere said he understands Henry’s educational approach to public awareness, he pointed out how seatbelt-wearing didn’t become widespread, despite ad campaigns, until it became law to wear one while driving. (Henry did state on July 23 that she may make masks mandatory if necessary.) But because we don’t have a COVID-19 vaccine yet, Ghesquiere said, people practising health measures provides an equivalent for immunization.