To Mask or Not to Mask? We Ask the Experts About the Coronavirus

Hawai‘i residents and travelers are looking for protection. Here’s what you should know before you buy masks.
A surgical mask and an N95 respirator. 
Photo: Courtesy of Science Photo Library/ Getty Images; South China Morning Post/Getty Images


Because of the increasing spread of the coronavirus—2019-nCoV—worldwide, anxiety is rising. In local stores, masks are in short supply as residents and travelers buy them as a precaution. But medical professionals discourage panic purchases.


The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not currently recommend the general American public use a face mask to protect against novel coronavirus. Only healthcare professionals caring for 2019-nCoV patients, people who are sick with 2019-nCoV, or in some cases people caring for patients who are sick with 2019-nCoV need precautions like a face mask to help limit their risk of spreading 2019-nCoV.


We've summed up the latest on masks from sources at the Hawai‘i Department of Health (DOH), federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and international, World Health Organization (WHO).


Q: I see some workers at Honolulu airport are wearing surgical masks. Should people who come into contact with international visitors wear masks?

A: Wearing a surgical mask does not prevent a person from inhaling smaller airborne particles; they are not considered respiratory protection by the CDC.  However, when people who are sick use a medical mask it can help limit the spread of some respiratory disease. There is no evidence that shows it can keep people from being infected. Other prevention measures are more essential including hand and respiratory hygiene (see below) and avoiding close contact–at least 3 feet distance between yourself and other people. (WHO)


Q. During previous disease outbreaks, experts said that N95 respirator masks—those that are sometimes used by surfboard makers, on construction sites as well as medical personnel—might be effective in preventing the spread of disease. Are those masks or surgical masks—like we see worn on planes and in some other public places—being recommended to people living in the United States?

A. The N95 respirator mask is more effective and protective. However, medical experts say using any kind of mask is not fail safe. Only use them if you have respiratory symptoms (coughing or sneezing), have suspected 2019-nCoV infection with mild symptoms or are caring for someone with suspected 2019-nCoV infection. A suspected 2019-nCoV infection is linked to travel in an area in China where 2019-nCoV has been reported, or close contact with someone who has travelled from China and has respiratory symptoms. Again, this is to prevent you from infecting others. 


Q. My friends have family in China and the Philippines and asked about buying masks here to send to China to protect people there. Should we send masks?

A. Masks might be worn in some countries according to local cultural habits. But again, getting them for those who are not showing symptoms may cause unnecessary cost, make it hard for people who need the masks to get them and create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand-washing practices, according to the WHO. 


Q. What’s the best way to project myself and my family from coronavirus?

A: Similar to preventing other respiratory illnesses, including the flu, the state recommends:

  • Wash hands often

  • Avoid touching eyes, nose, or mouth with unwashed hands 

  • Avoid contact with sick people

  • Stay home while you are sick; avoid others 

  • Cover mouth/nose with a tissue or sleeve when coughing or sneezing

  • Most people with mild coronavirus illness will recover on their own by drinking plenty of fluids, resting, and taking pain and fever medications as needed


Q. What else can we do in Hawai‘i?

A. The DOH also recommends everyone get vaccinated for influenza, the flu, to reduce the number of flu cases in Hawaii and the burden on our healthcare system. This will help reduce confusion as persons with flu will have signs and symptoms like 2019-nCoV. And DOH recommends residents aged 6 months and older protect themselves against flu by receiving the seasonal influenza vaccination.


Read more stories by Robbie Dingeman