Why the Surgeon General is begging you to stop buying face masks


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From celebrities on social media to the person sitting next to you on the subway, there are a lot of people donning face masks amid the spread of COVID-19. The U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome M. Adams, MD, MPH, sent a tweet over the weekend urging people to stop buying masks, noting that it makes it harder for health professionals to get masks and that masks won’t prevent the general public from contracting the illness.

UPDATE: On March 27, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese CDC, told Science that he thinks the biggest mistake being made in U.S. and Europe “is that people aren’t wearing masks.” Studies have shown that wearing surgical masks can help stop the spread of respiratory viruses to an extent, and some doctors say wearing a homemade mask is better than nothing. However, the World Health Organization stands behind its initial guidelines. “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly,” said Mike Ryan, MD, executive director of the WHO health emergencies program, at a media briefing in Geneva on March 30.

Leave aside the tone of the tweet. People are generally confused as to whether face masks are effective against viruses, so I asked Russell Buhr, MD, PhD, a pulmonary and critical care physician at UCLA Medical Center for more clarification.

“One of the concerns for people wearing masks is that masks may offer people a false sense of security that isn’t really there, especially if they’re not being worn correctly,” says Dr. Buhr. “If you’re spending all day adjusting your mask and touching your face, you’re more likely to inoculate yourself with a virus just from touching stuff around you and then touching your face.”

Dr. Buhr, who is also an assistant professor of medicine at UCLA, explains that surgical masks are designed to protect patients from health care workers.

“Surgical masks don’t really do much to protect healthcare workers, or other people, from viruses because there isn’t really adequate filtration in the surgical mask to actually do a whole lot about filtering stuff out of the air,” he says.

Consumers have rushed to buy masks online, which has led to price gouging and low supply for those who actually need one, such as health-care professionals helping high-risk patients. The average person doesn’t have the training to wear a mask correctly nor the need.

“[Health-care workers] all have to do specific training and testing to demonstrate the appropriate fit, and how to correctly wear, put on, and take off these masks,” he says. “The general public are not trained and not fit tested to make sure that they have the appropriately sized or shaped mask for their face.”

Generally speaking, he says the average population risk of contracting COVID-19 is pretty low. However, to protect ourselves, we should continue to take common precautions during cold and flu season, like trying to stay home and self-isolate when we’re not feeling well, and washing our hands frequently, especially before and after we eat.

The CDC says face masks should only be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19, health-care workers, and caretakers either at-home or in a health-care facility. Dr. Buhr adds that if you or those close to you should be wearing a mask, your doctor will let you know.

Originally published March 2, 2020; updated March 30, 2020.

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