At press time, the virus has claimed the lives of 80 people, with 2,800 cases confirmed across China. China has put tens of millions of residents under quarantine.
In the face of all that, face mask shortages are cropping up across China and other populated areas worldwide.
But do simple face masks actually work against a deadly virus that we still don’t fully understand?
Generally speaking, there are two types of face masks: surgical masks and particulate filtering respirators, often referred to as N95 masks.
Surgical masks aren’t able to create a full seal and allow some particles to still get in, according to New Scientist, because they’re most often used in a sanitary hospital environment. N95 masks, on the other hand, create a better seal and are designed to catch 95 percent of small particles before they reach the nose and mouth — but only work well if they fit on the wearer’s face, and tend to restrict airflow.
Despite the distinction, we really don’t know if either do an effective job at preventing infection.
“There really are no good, solid, reliable data,” professor of infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University William Schaffner told NPR.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) advises that patients who might have the virus “should be asked to wear a surgical mask as soon as they are identified and be evaluated in a private room with the door closed.” Healthcare workers around them, according to the CDC, should resort to N95 respirators.
That doesn’t mean the still largely unaffected general public, particularly in the US, needs to don a mask during everyday activities. The chances of catching the virus in the US are still extremely low. People in most areas have a much, much greater chance of catching the common flu.
“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,” associate chief medical officer for Emory University Colleen Kraft told the Washington Post.
The best piece of advice offered by experts is to treat the coronavirus much like the common flu: wash hands regularly and be wary of touching possibly contaminated surfaces.
The World Health Organization advises to also cover mouth and nose with a flexed elbow when sneezing, avoid close contact with anyone who has a fever or coughs, and to avoid unprotected contact with live animals.
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READ MORE: Can an N95 face mask protect you from catching the new coronavirus? [New Scientist]
More on the virus: Here’s a Timeline of How China’s Viral Outbreak Spread Worldwide