Coronavirus Q&A: Is it time to cover up and wear a face mask?

How effective are face masks? Can I still buy any? Conor Pope has all the answers. . .

Face masks are making headlines again?

They are after the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar confirmed that the Government was considering following the lead of other countries across the EU in altering its advice on face masks and asking people to consider wearing face coverings when they are out and about.

Face coverings?

Yes, the Taoiseach drew a distinction between face masks and coverings because he wanted to make sure that “face masks are preserved and protected for our healthcare staff and those who need them the most”.

Would I have to wear a covering at all times?

No, the idea is that masks or other face coverings will be worn in places where social distancing is difficult. That includes public transport and in enclosed indoor spaces. Many countries in Europe and Asia have made masks mandatory while the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention advises the wearing of basic masks including those made of cloth for all people in public spaces.

What is the World Health Organisation saying?

It is reviewing its stance on an ongoing basis. In the past it has warned that masks can actually facilitate the spread of the coronavirus, especially if used incorrectly.

But are masks effective in stopping the spread of the virus?

The jury is still out. A growing number of scientists say that while basic face masks may not prevent infection for the wearer they may make it more difficult for people who have the virus to spread it.

How can masks facilitate the spread of the virus?

In several ways. They can create complacency and see people relaxing when it comes to proper hand hygiene and social distancing. And masks can also encourage people to touch their faces more frequently. And far too many people have no idea how they should actually be worn and how they should be put on and taken off.

How should they be worn?

The wearer should work under the assumption that there is virus on their hands. People need to make sure their hands are washed properly before putting the mask on. The masks have to be attached in a way that is comfortable so they don’t need to be touched or adjusted. Before a mask is taken off, the wearer should wash their hands. The mask must be disposed of carefully and then hands have to be washed again. Masks should not be removed so they can talk, eat or smoke. They need to cover the nose and mouth and they should not be left dangling around the neck. Disposable masks should not be used for more than four to six hours.

Where can I buy masks?

Even before there was a case of coronavirus in Ireland, panic-buying of face masks in pharmacies and hardware shops had led to shortages across the country. Wholesale prices soared by as much as 500 per cent. Availability has improved in recent weeks with many pharmacies - and corner shops - now stocking them. Prices can vary from less than €2 a mask to closer to €4.

That seems expensive? Are pharmacies ripping people off?

Probably not. Masks are one of the most sought after items in the world right now. Supply is limited and manufacturers and wholesalers are charging a premium. So before you give out about your local pharmacy charging €2.50 for a mask, ask yourself how much they might have paid for it.

What about home made masks?

There is definitely a place for them. There are all manner of YouTube tutorials showing people how to make them. They may help in slowing transmission but as with other masks, it is important they are used correctly. Put them on with clean hands, don't touch your face or the mask while it is on. And then when you are ready to take it off, wash it immediately at a temperature of at least 60 degrees.

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