SINGAPORE: Wear a face mask if you’re out and about, that was Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s advice in a nationally televised address on Friday (Apr 3).
Some cities dealing with the COVID-19 outbreak, such as Hong Kong, have long advocated this, but the World Health Organization (WHO) has discouraged people who are healthy from wearing them.
Its stand so far is that only health workers, those caring for COVID-19 patients and people who were unwell should wear them.
While WHO is reviewing this advice, Singapore, the US and a few other countries have reversed earlier guidance not to wear masks in public.
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Why was there a change in stance and how can you use your mask more effectively? Here’s what you need to know:
WHY WEAR A MASK?
The new evidence suggests that infected people may be able to spread the virus to others for two to three days before becoming ill, says Associate Professor Hsu Li Yang from Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health in the National University of Singapore.
A Singapore study on such pre-symptomatic spread, published last week, found at least 10 cases of this happening here.
With a rise in cases here, there is a possibility of some undetected coronavirus cases in the community, said the Ministry of Health. Such people may still be out and about at work or in places where people congregate without realising that they are infectious.
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According to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the mask is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.
“By wearing a mask – even a cloth mask – these pre- or asymptomatic persons may be a little less likely to spread the virus to others,” says Assoc Prof Hsu, who is also the school’s programme leader for infectious diseases and the co-director of Global Health.
WHEN SHOULD YOU WEAR A MASK?
Physical distancing remains the most important measure against the spread of SARS-CoV-2 – the virus that causes COVID-19, says Assoc Prof Hsu.
However, it is not always possible to maintain reasonable physical distance from others if one goes to work or out to buy essential items. In that situation, other measures such as handwashing will be helpful.
Wearing of cloth masks may also provide an additional level of protection. Singapore authorities have advised people to wear masks when they go to a “crowded environment”.
WHICH MASKS ARE EFFECTIVE?
The N95 and surgical masks are most effective in terms of preventing the spread of respiratory viruses, but they are not reusable and are potentially in short supply worldwide.
WHO has said that they should be reserved for healthcare staff and other frontline workers, who are most in need of them.
Cloth and paper masks are less effective, although various studies have shown that they may still have a protective effect, says Assoc Prof Hsu.
HOW TO CHOOSE AND WEAR A CLOTH MASK
According to the CDC, cloth face coverings should fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face.
They should include multiple layers of fabric while allowing for breathing without restriction.
People should be careful not to touch their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash their hands immediately after removing.
The reusable masks need to withstand washing and machine drying without damage or change to shape.
Ideally the masks should be washed after each use, says Assoc Prof Hsu.
WHERE CAN YOU COLLECT YOUR REUSABLE MASK?
Reusable masks are being distributed from Apr 5 until Apr 12 at Community Centres and Resident’s Committee Centres.
The collection times are between 3pm and 9pm on weekdays, and between 10am and 9pm on weekends and public holidays.
Not sure where to collect your mask from? Refer to the website www.maskgowhere.sg for more details.
CAN SURGICAL MASKS BE REUSED?
The efficacy of a surgical mask drops significantly if it becomes damp. There is also a risk of infection if the masks have been contaminated. Therefore these masks really should not be reused, says Assoc Prof Hsu.
“However, if one is short of masks and does not have a reusable mask, they can be reused if not contaminated or wet,” he added.
“Care must be taken during reuse to avoid getting one’s hands inadvertently contaminated.”
They should always be worn with the pleated side facing out.
DOESN’T SINGAPORE HAVE A NATIONAL STOCKPILE OF MASKS?
Singapore has sufficient surgical masks, so long as the country uses them responsibly, said MOH.
The Government is prioritising the use of the stockpile to ensure that healthcare workers at the frontline and the vulnerable, including those who have fallen ill, are taken care of.
The surge in global demand for masks and uncertainty on whether this infection will be prolonged has also resulted in a global shortage.
The Government is working with retailers to identify new sources of masks and to expedite the shipment of masks and other in-demand items.