An infectious disease specialist explains who should wear one, and who doesn't have to.

By Claire Gillespie
January 28, 2020

Only hours after the first case of coronavirus was detected in the US in Seattle on January 21, surgical masks reportedly began selling out in pharmacies in Washington State. But with more cases confirmed across the nation this week, panic has now spread to other states. As a result, people are stockpiling masks in Los Angeles and making “runs on pharmacies” in New York, reports BBC News.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, six cases of the new coronavirus (known as 2019-nCoV and one of many known coronaviruses) have been found in Washington State, Illinois, California, and Arizona, and 92 more individuals are waiting for their test results.

Understandably, people are worried. But will wearing a surgical mask really protect you from this coronavirus?

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Probably not, Andres Romero, MD, an infectious disease specialist at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, tells Health. “Based on the current available information, we can’t say surgical masks help prevent contracting coronavirus,” says Dr. Romero. For one thing, while the rising number of new cases diagnosed in China suggests human-to-human transmission of the virus, scientists don’t know for sure that this new coronavirus is spread to and from people. So wearing a surgical mask in crowded places, such as on public transportation or at restaurants, might not reduce risk.

Currently, the CDC recommends that health care workers use “contact and airborne precautions” when treating a patient who might have coronavirus. Patients who have coronavirus or who are suspected to be infected should also be asked to wear a surgical mask as soon as they are identified and “be evaluated in a private room with the door closed, ideally an airborne infection isolation room if available.” 

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“Contact and airborne precautions” go way beyond just a surgical mask, says Dr. Romero. “This recommendation implies wearing an N95 mask, which provides a closer fit to the face and more effective filtration of airborne particles,” he explains. Eye protection, gowns, and gloves should also be worn, due to the lack of understanding of the transmission route of the virus. 

Again, Dr. Romero stresses that these recommendations only apply to health care workers who are treating patients potentially exposed to coronavirus. “For the layperson, the risk of being exposed to the virus is considered low even in cities like Los Angeles where cases have been detected,” he says. In other words, there’s no clear benefit of racing to the pharmacy to buy hundreds of surgical masks. 

If you’re concerned about the coronavirus, that’s understandable, given the media coverage. But Dr. Romero says the flu is actually of a much greater concern, and advises getting the flu vaccination, if you haven’t already. (No, it’s not too late.)   

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 There’s no vaccine for coronavirus, but standard hygiene precautions will always cut the likelihood of getting any viral respiratory illness (whether that’s the flu, or coronavirus, or something else). Dr. Romero advises frequent hand-washing as well as covering your mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing.

If you’re the “better to be safe than sorry” type and still want to wear a mask, you can pick one up at just about any major pharmacy chain as well as an office supply store like Staples. Medical supply stores also carry them. Amazon has two types available as well—just in case your local pharmacy, Staples, or medical supply store has run out.  

The HDX N95 Respirator Mask ($47.97 for a pack of 15, plus free shipping) claims to have a 95% filter efficiency against solid particles. This is the same surgical mask the CDC recommends that health care workers wear if they have been exposed to a person with coronavirus or who might have the virus. 

If the N95 sells out, the KF94 Mask is another option. (A pack of 50 runs $86—enough for everyone you know—plus free shipping). This one has a 94% dust removal efficiency. It looks pretty similar to the N95, although perhaps doesn't fit the face as closely.

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