People are panicking, and this face mask is flying off shelves. But do you really need to wear one?

By Claire Gillespie
February 26, 2020
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Scientists around the world are working overtime to control outbreaks of the new coronavirus, but one thing they can’t control is the widespread public alarm over COVID-19. Schools are closing; people are cancelling travel plans and panic-buying supplies—including a face mask called the N95 respirator mask, which many people believe offers protection against the coronavirus. 

Even celebrities are sharing their fears and sporting masks. Both Gwyneth Paltrow and Kate Hudson posted mid-flight pictures on Instagram Tuesday wearing face masks, though not the N95.

“En route to Paris. Paranoid? Prudent? Panicked? Placid? Pandemic? Propaganda? Paltrow’s just going to go ahead and sleep with this thing on the plane,” Paltrow captioned her pic. 

Meanwhile Hudson, who didn’t reveal her destination, kept her caption short, writing: “Travel. 2020. #😳.” 

Presumably, Paltrow and Hudson were responding to a precautionary warning issued Tuesday by the Centers for Disease Control. The CDC announced that the virus is expected to spread at the community level in the United States, which means they are preparing for significant nationwide “disruption” to day-to-day life.  

Paltrow seems to have gotten off lightly in the comments section, but many of Hudson’s followers were quick to point out that her choice of face mask probably doesn’t have any benefits, and at least one wrote that the N95 is the right option.

“If you’re worried about corona, only the N95 mask will protect you,” a nurse wrote, pointing out that Hudson’s current mask “won’t do much.” 

Is this right—should everyone be wearing N95 respiratory masks to stay safe from the coronavirus? In a word, no.

Infectious disease expert Amesh A. Adalja, MD, senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, tells Health that the N95 is still the recommended face mask for health professionals, because it has the capacity to filter out very small particles that could possibly contain the virus. “This is different than a surgical mask, which can only stop larger droplets,” says Dr. Adalja.

The N95 is designed to achieve "a very close facial fit," according to the Food and Drug Administration, and if properly fitted blocks "at least 95%" of very small test particles, though it doesn't completely eliminate the risk of illness, per the FDA.

Right now, the advice from the CDC is that health care workers use “respiratory protection (i.e., a respirator) that is at least as protective as a fit-tested NIOSH-certified disposable N95 filtering facepiece respirator before entry into the patient room or care area.” Additionally, all staff should be medically cleared and fit-tested if using a disposable N95 mask and trained in the proper use, safe removal, and disposal of the mask.

While those who work in health care settings are advised to wear the N95 face mask, there is no such advisory for the general public. The N95 face mask is only recommended for health professionals dealing with patients who may be infected with the coronavirus. No face mask is advised for people who don't work in health care settings where coronavirus poses a risk.

“Masks are not highly effective for the general public, who often don’t wear them correctly,” says Dr. Adalja. In fact, he stresses that the demand for the N95 and other face masks by the public may create supply problems for those who actually need them.

There is no situation in which a face mask might provide increased protection to the general public, even during air travel, says Dr. Adalja. He doesn’t think it helps to see celebrities wearing masks. “It increases panic,” he explains. 

As the coronavirus continues to spread, the official advice may change, and people are advised to keep an eye on the CDC website, which is updated whenever any new information is available. In the meantime, forgo the mask and focus on more effective preventative measures, such as frequent hand-washing and covering the mouth and nose when coughing or sneezing. 

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDC, WHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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