Here are the key facts.
How do they work?
The most commonly worn, cheap and disposable masks, known as the surgical masks, will limit — but not eliminate — the chance of inhaling large, infectious particles circulating near the face, said Marybeth Sexton, an assistant professor at Emory University School of Medicine. Even with perfect use, these masks aren’t foolproof because a virus or pathogen can still slip through the sides or enter the body through the eyes.
All in all, the science suggests they are a flawed but valid line of defense.
The outer fabric of surgical face masks is usually yellow or blue with one elastic or wire edge for tightening. To put it on properly, the mask’s absorbent side must be worn facing in and the colored side facing out. The mask needs to fit securely over the mouth, chin and nose. That is why the edge with the metal strip is put at the top — so that the metal can be molded over the nose.
Removing the mask correctly is equally important. The mask should be treated as if it’s contaminated and pulled off by the straps around the ears, and never just lowered from the mouth.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends that any health-care workers interacting with coronavirus patients or suspected cases wear a stronger kind of mask, known as the N95 respirator, along with other gear such as gloves and eye protectors.
The N95 filters out 95 percent of pollutants and is “highly effective” in preventing the transmission of viruses, Sexton said. However, these masks must be specially fitted and therefore are not commonly worn outside of the health care setting.
Should I wear one?
Infectious-disease experts said that there’s little need to wear face masks in the United States, where health officials have confirmed five cases of the pneumonia-like illness.
Given the low threat level, covering one’s face and nose isn’t necessary when outside or in a place with good ventilation, said Colleen Kraft, associate chief medical officer for Emory University Hospital, who helped treat the first U.S. Ebola cases in 2014.
“Wearing a mask walking around isn’t going to do any good, but if you’re in a situation where you’re highly exposed, a mask is helpful,” Kraft said. “You may wear a mask when someone is going to cough directly on you or [in] a place with a lot of ill people. In a hospital, we wear a mask with patients who have influenza.”
Kraft said that people in the United States should instead be taking the same precautions they would to avoid contracting the flu, such as being vigilant about washing hands regularly and cautious about touching their faces and possibly contaminated surfaces.
Are there enough masks?
Chinese authorities have been encouraging people to wear face masks covering their mouths and noses, which has led to a surge in demand.
Chinese face mask manufacturers have reported that they’re running factories through the Lunar New Year holiday break to keep up. Companies are even offering to increase workers’ wages dramatically to entice them to return to work and stay for longer hours.
“From what I have heard, the mask shortage is much, much more severe than what the public knows,” Cao Jun, the general manager of the Chinese mask manufacturer Lanhine, told Reuters. “Almost all hospital workers nationwide are facing a huge shortage of masks, not just in Wuhan. That’s very terrible.”
Usually Cao’s company produces 400,000 masks daily, but demand has skyrocketed to 200 million.
As part of China’s emergency efforts, state media reported that the country’s minister of industry has ordered factories “to overcome labor difficulties during the Spring Festival, accelerate production and do their utmost to increase supply to the market,” face masks included, Reuters reported. On social media, hospitals and health workers have been making urgent pleas for supplies including face masks.
E-commerce platforms that are popular in China, such as Taobao, have warned sellers not to increase prices on face masks. Nonetheless, news sites have reported increases over five times the usual prices. The Straits Times, a newspaper in Singapore, reported that Chinese nationals there are stocking up on protective gear to send to family members in China.
U.S. face mask manufacturers told The Washington Post that they also are dealing with a jump in demand.
“We are experiencing a surge in demand for our protective face masks in North America, Europe and China,” Honeywell International, based in North Carolina, said in a statement. “We are increasing production at multiple facilities globally, and we are fulfilling all current orders.”
3M, a major manufacturer based in Minnesota, also reported an increase in production after a rise in demand from China for respiratory protection products.
This is part of why the U.S. government keeps a face mask stockpile for emergencies.
As The Post’s Lena Sun reported, the U.S. government has several secret storage facilities holding drugs and supplies that are part of a $7 billion Strategic National Stockpile ready to be used in the case of a bioterrorism or nuclear attack or an outbreak of an infectious disease. The medical contents of the repository held nationwide would cover more than 31 football fields if laid out.