Whitehawk Associates


Masks, Myths and Novel Coronavirus

Since my last article on practical safety measures for the 2019-nCoV outbreak, I’ve had further discussions with friends in retail operations, and we realized that there’s some misconceptions about the control measures we’re seeing in the news from Wuhan – so I thought it may help to highlight some of the misunderstandings.

A common misconception is that the measures we see in Wuhan, including compulsory use of masks, stopping public transport and encouraging people to stay at home, are to protect individuals from infection. While public health is certainly the overall aim, the immediate objective is to reduce the ‘R0’ – which is the expected number of secondary cases caused by an infected person. If the public health professionals can reduce the RO to less than 1.0, then the epidemic will subside.

This normally involves the use of three main tools:

  1. Social distancing – preventing large gatherings, closing malls, encouraging people to stay at home
  2. Limiting movement – suspending public transport, closing roads
  3. Reducing the chance of infected people passing on the virus – quarantine, sanitizing, requiring people to wear masks

At first these measures look similar to the controls we’re implementing in our operations, but the public health officials are laser focused on protecting the community by reducing the R0, whereas we are looking at protecting individuls – our staff and customers. We obviously need to support the public measures and follow local instructions, but it can be useful to understand that we have a different perpective. This difference in focus is most marked when we consider the use of surgical masks.

In the medical profession, paper surgical masks are to protect patients from possible infection by the medical staff. Sugeons wear surgical masks to avoid contaminating any open wounds during surgery – the aim is to absorb any respiratory droplet infections from the surgean’s mouth. If medical staff are treating a patient with a known respiratory infection, they will use high efficiency ‘hepa’ filter equipped ‘gasmasks’ and goggles, not a loose fitting paper mask.

So when planning our control measures, we need to remember that surgical masks are to help prevent infected people from passing on the infection to healthy people, and not to protect healthy people from infected people. In practice the primary way to enable people to protect themselves are regular handwashing, not touching mouth and eyes and avoiding crowded areas, and the ways we can help to protect our people is providing accurate information and by giving them the equipment, chemicals, training and time for regular sanitizing. Masks also play their part – but it helps to understand their limitations.