But infectious-disease experts say a face mask can offer only slight protection against airborne illness. A more effective defense against a virus is washing your hands thoroughly with soap and warm water after using the restroom and before eating.
“The regular surgical masks that you might buy at the drug store probably are effective for half an hour, and after that, they become wet from your breath, then they’re much less effective,” said Dr. Stephen Blatt, medical director for infectious diseases at TriHealth. “The longer you wear them, the less effective they become.”
Dr. Senu Apewokin, an infectious-disease specialist at UC Health, said that while face masks can provide a temporary barrier against viruses, “we worry more about influenza than the coronavirus. The things we would do to prevent against the coronavirus are the very things we would do against influenza, washing hands, using alcohol-based hand sanitizers, avoid others who are ill, if you are sick, stay home.”
As of Friday, more than 9,690 people, mainly in China, have contracted what is called the 2019 novel coronavirus. All the deaths, more than 200 so far, have occurred in China. Experts say the virus jumped from animals to humans in the Chinese city of Wuhan in early December, then spread rapidly from sick people sneezing or coughing.
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In the United States, six people in four states have contracted the coronavirus. Five had traveled in China and contracted the virus there. The sixth is the spouse of a current patient. Federal authorities have cautioned against nonessential travel to China.
On Tuesday, Dr. Amy Acton, director of the Ohio Department of Health, sought to calm worries about a disease spread while speaking at Miami University about the two suspected cases. She said the risk is low in the United States for contagion.
Two Miami students who traveled to China during the university’s January break went to student health services Monday when one student felt ill. The students were tested for the coronavirus, then sent home to stay in isolation until test results come back from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, perhaps by the end of the week.
Officials at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign student health center handed out facial masks to allay concerns there. Nearly 150 students at the campus are from Wuhan.
“Some people are wearing a mask to protect themselves,” said Robert Parker, the center’s director. “And some people are wearing a mask to protect others. That’s all just great.”
What little clinical research has been done on the effectiveness of face masks shows that they can be useful in warding off illness, especially in hospitals, medical offices and long-term care facilities. But much depends on the kind of face masks used and how well the mask fits over the user’s nose and mouth.
Blatt of TriHealth said that since so little is known about the novel coronavirus, it’s not clear what kind of face mask would be best. An N95 respirator, a heavy-duty unit made of denser materials, can filter out the Ebola virus and measles. But that mask works best when it’s professionally fitted. Health care workers are fit-tested for those masks.
Paper masks such as those available in drug stores often fit too loosely, which gives viruses plenty of opportunities to sneak around the barrier. Men with facial hair often have difficulty getting the best fit over the mouth and nose.
Apewokin echoes Blatt’s observation that experts don’t know enough about the coronavirus to develop additional prevention steps. “This is a new virus. We’re learning more and more about the virus every day, and even if I tell you something today, it may change tomorrow. What I do say is, theoretically, face masks have been known to be effective against viruses.”
In the days after the announcement of the two suspected cases at Miami University, students have visited E&H Ace Hardware on Oxford’s South College Avenue for face masks. Store manager Ryan Woedl said her stocks were running low, and there are problems getting resupplied.
But she also said the face masks she sells are for workplace safety, not disease protection. “People are buying dust masks, not medical masks. They’re buying whatever they can get their hands on …I think it’s just like, if you hear snow’s coming, you come and buy shovels.”
Contributing: Chris Quintana