Canada’s top doctor now says that people who don’t have symptoms of the novel coronavirus can wear non-medical masks when in public as “an additional measure” to protect other people amid the pandemic.
There is growing evidence that people infected with COVID-19 are able to transmit the virus before they develop symptoms, Dr. Theresa Tam said during a daily news conference on Monday.
Similarly, there is also emerging evidence that some people who have the virus but never develop symptoms are able to transmit the virus as well, Canada’s chief public health officer said.
“Wearing a non-medical mask, even if you have no symptoms, is an additional measure that you can take to protect others around you in situations where physical distancing is difficult to maintain, such as in public transit or maybe in the grocery store,” Tam said.
“A non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or land on surfaces.”
Tam suggested using material from cotton shirts, sheets or bandannas and elastic bands to create face coverings. Wearing a non-medical mask in the community, however, “has not been proven to protect the person wearing it,” Tam reiterated.
The new guidance also shouldn’t replace the public health measures already put in place to help curb the spread of COVID-19, Tam added.
“You must continue to practise physical distancing and good hygiene by frequent handwashing and regularly disinfect high-touch surfaces,” she said.
Federal Health Minister Patty Hajdu hesitated to call the new guidance on face coverings a blanket recommendation.
“There are certain circumstances where an individual may feel that they are not able to practise the physical distancing of two metres and would like to take additional measures to protect the people around them,” she said.
Tam said it’s still not known how big a role pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic transmission play in “driving” the pandemic but officials know it’s occurring from recent studies.
“It is clear that transmission of the virus is happening more often than previously recognized from infected people right before they develop symptoms,” she said.
Tam urged Canadians to leave the supply of medical-grade masks for health-care workers, which aligns with guidance from the World Health Organization (WHO), which also addressed the mask debate on Monday.
The WHO said it was “evaluating” the wider use of medical and non-medical masks amid the pandemic and issuing “guidance and criteria to support countries” as they review their public health recommendations.
“For example, countries could consider using masks in communities where other measures such as cleaning hands and physical distancing are harder to achieve because of lack of water or cramped living conditions,” WHO director-general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said.
Tedros said there’s “limited research” on the use of masks among the general population and asked countries considering their wider use to “study their effectiveness so we can all learn.”
The new guidance from Ottawa on non-medical masks comes three days after new federal guidelines were announced in the United States, recommending that citizens cover their face when outside their homes to help slow the spread of the virus.
As of April 6, there were 15,806 confirmed cases of the new coronavirus across Canada, according to the Public Health Agency of Canada.
To date, the deaths of 293 people have been linked to the virus in the country, the agency says.
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