A woman wears a homemade protective face mask as she goes for a walk in Vancouver, Monday, Apr. 6, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

Non-medical face masks could help slow spread of COVID-19: top doctor

Canada’s top doctor has new advice for Canadians: wearing a home-made face mask could reduce the spread of COVID-19 in situations where keeping the physical distance from others is difficult.

But Chief Medical Officer Dr. Theresa Tam says it’s important to remember that wearing a face mask is just a complimentary measure and doesn’t replace other measures such as keeping a physical distance and frequently washing hands.

The aim of wearing a mask in public is to prevent transmission by people who have been infected by the new coronavirus but don’t show any symptoms yet from unknowingly infecting others around them.

“A non-medical mask can reduce the chance of your respiratory droplets coming into contact with others or landing on surfaces,” Tam said at her regular briefing in Ottawa on Monday. “The science is not certain but we we need to do everything that we can and it seems a sensible thing to do.”

Tam said this would help in scenarios such as shopping in the grocery store or riding public transit.

“Canadians can take this additional measure in instances where social distancing is difficult to maintain,” Tam said.

She advised people not to use medical face masks because the rapidly dwindling supply of personal protective equipment should be reserved for health-care professionals.

Home-made masks could be made from materials readily available in most households, Tam said.

“Things like cotton shirts, sheets, bandanas,” she said.

“If you can get a cotton material like a T-shirt, you cut it up, you fold it and put elastic bands around it – this is a non-medical facial covering.”

A woman wears improvises to make a protective face mask as she goes for a walk in Vancouver, Monday, Apr. 6, 2020. (Jonathan Hayward/THE CANADIAN PRESS)

The recommendation represents an about-face for Tam, who until recently had resisted the idea of non-health care professionals wearing masks.

It comes three days after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans should wear a cloth face mask when in public.

“Our collective scientific knowledge of COVID-19 continues to grow,” she said.

“Now that more countries have had a larger number of cases … 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. “This is called presymptomatic transmission.”

With files from CBC News and The Canadian Press

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