4 August 2020
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Does wearing a mask help ward off the Coronavirus?

Dr Ross Walker
30 April 2020

There are conflicting reports from a number of sources around the benefits of masks in regard to protection from developing COVID-19. One study, published in Nature Medicine from the University of Maryland, used a particular breath capturing machine to study this very issue. The researcher, Dr Don Milton, demonstrated in 2013 that surgical masks may reduce the transmission of influenza. Dr Milton suggests that not just coughing and sneezing but also tiny, aerosolised droplets through normal breathing can also transmit the virus. Any form of mask can certainly prevent this from occurring.

This study examined 246 people with suspected respiratory infections and showed that surgical masks reduced detectable virus in respiratory droplets containing the common cold coronavirus and influenza. Interestingly they did not prevent the spread of rhinoviruses, the most common virus detected when a person experiences the common cold. Thus, the conclusion of this study was that the use of surgical masks did reduce the spread of respiratory infections, such as COVID-19 and influenza. There appears to be even greater protection from the use of N95 masks.

But, in another study recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine but in only four patients with proven COVID-19, the wearing of surgical or cotton masks appeared to have an affect on the spread of the virus when these patients were asked to cough. The masks were swabbed on the inside, the outside and on a nearby Petrie dish with the virus being found on all surfaces. This study, however, did not look at whether these masks prevented the spread of the virus through normal breathing, which was suggested on the first study.

It was also found in another study that coughing, breathing or even talking can spread the virus 4 metres, even more than our current social distancing guidelines.

In some countries, such as Germany, it is now law to wear masks in public.

In conclusion, on the balance of evidence, it is probably best to wear a mask in public. It will probably reduce the spread of the virus reducing you and your fellow citizens’ chance of catching the virus.

Our current social distancing, isolation and restrictions have clearly worked in Australia where we are, in reality, the poster child for coronavirus control. Wearing masks is probably yet another aspect of this excellent pandemic control, a tribute to all Australians.

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