April 18, 2024


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Yes, wear a mask but when and why? Here’s what you need to know

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.

READ: Government will no longer discourage people from wearing face masks, reusable masks to be distributed

Why was there a change in stance and how can you use your mask more effectively? Here’s what you need to know: 


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. 

READ: COVID-19: Nearly 20,000 foreign workers in quarantine in S11 Dormitory, Westlite Toh Guan

READ: Toh Guan Dormitory declared as isolation area under Infectious Diseases Act

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.


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”. 


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.

The outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) in Berlin

FILE PHOTO: Masks are displayed at a general store, during the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in the Kreuzberg district of Berlin, Germany, April 3, 2020. REUTERS/Michele Tantussi

Cloth and paper masks are less effective, although various studies have shown that they may still have a protective effect, says Assoc Prof Hsu.


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.

COVID-19 reusable face mask issued by Government

File photo of COVID-19 reusable face mask issued by the Government. 

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. 


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. 

Macpherson Zone F RC reusable masks collection (1)

Reusable masks are distributed by the People’s Association at Macpherson Zone F Residents’ Committee. (Photo: Chew Hui Min)


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.


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.

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