Hours after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention warned that an outbreak of coronavirus in the U.S. is “inevitable,” actor Kate Hudson posted a picture of herself on Instagram sitting on a plane and appearing to wear a face mask. She added the caption: “Travel. 2020” with a flushed-face emoji.
The outbreak, which is teetering on the edge of a pandemic, has caused 80,000 infections and 2,708 deaths worldwide as of Tuesday. Still, experts insist the risk of getting influenza in the U.S. remains “far greater.” The CDC estimates that as many as 41,000 Americans have been infected with the flu since October, and that over 16,000 deaths have been linked to the virus. By comparison, 53 Americans have been diagnosed with coronavirus thus far. Those who do contract it have a high chance of recovery with a mortality rate of just 0.7 percent outside of China, according to the World Health Organization.
But despite both the low-level of spreading outside of China and the extremely high likelihood of a full recovery, an increasing number of Americans have begun to purchase and wear masks like Hudson. After the 40-year-old posted the selfie, comments began to roll in — some applauding her for protecting herself and others pointing out that the mask she is wearing isn’t effective at preventing the spread of the virus.
William Schaffner, MD, an epidemiologist and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, agrees. “The utility of those face masks is marginal at best. It's like Linus’s [from Peanuts] comfort blanket — it makes you feel you've done something, you’re not just a victim,” Schaffner tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “It may give you a sense that you and everybody else in the community, as you look around seeing other people wearing masks, we're all together in this.”
Purvi Parikh, MD, a pediatric allergist and infectious disease specialist at NYU Langone Health shared a similar sentiment in an earlier interview with Yahoo Lifestyle. “They’re not terribly effective, especially if you have the regular paper surgical ones,” Parikh said. “These tiny droplets can still get behind the mask — it’s not like it’s an airtight seal. Many people don’t wear them properly.”
On top of comments about the lack of efficacy of a surgical mask, other commenters told Hudson she should purchase a “better” mask — specifically, an “N95 respirator.” The Food and Drug Administration has an information page on the N95 in which it’s described as a “protective device” designed for “very efficient filtration” of the virus’ airborne particles. “The ‘N95’ designation means that when subjected to careful testing, the respirator blocks at least 95 percent of very small ... test particles,” the FDA’s site reads. “If properly fitted, the filtration capabilities of N95 respirators exceed those of face masks. However, even a properly fitted N95 respirator does not completely eliminate the risk of illness or death.”
While the N95 may be the most effective method of preventing the spread of a virus, they aren’t designed for the general public. In order to be fully effective, they need to be “fit-tested” and if they’re the wrong size, they may not be effective at blocking particles at all.
Whether or not they’re effective, the CDC says that those outside of hospitals or other professions should not be considering purchasing them at this point. “CDC does not recommend the routine use of respirators outside of workplace settings (in the community),” the organization writes. “Most often, spread of respiratory viruses from person-to-person happens among close contacts (within 6 feet). CDC recommends everyday preventive actions to prevent the spread of respiratory viruses, such as avoiding people who are sick, avoiding touching your eyes or nose and covering your cough or sneeze with a tissue.”
Schaffner says that the masks are more effective at preventing anxiety about coronavirus than the infection itself. But he concedes that it’s a fairly harmless solution to nerves. “It gives you some comfort and a sense of solidarity,” he says. “It may be modest protection, but it's ‘this is what we can do’ kind of thing.”
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