Monrovia — On Thursday, 26 March, Liberia's Chief Medical Officer warned against the random "use of face mask" by people keen on preventing themselves from contracting the Coronavirus in the country.
"We have people in the public wearing [face] mask - having it on and going all around 24/7 [all day] ... if you keep it on for 20 to 30 minutes, you are breathing in it -- [which] forms moisture within it and you will be creating a means for the attraction of bacteria," cautioned Dr. Francis Kateh, who is also the Deputy Minister for Health and the head of the government's medical response against COVID-19.
"So, please, if you are in a congested area ... then you can wear it [mask] but [not] to be having it on 24/7 [it's not advisable]".
He, however, suggested that people can use a mask if they have ordinary flu or cough.
Dr. Kateh's warning about the usage of masks has been the least reported by the media so far in the country since he spoke last week at the government's regular press briefing to provide an update on the pandemic.
But with face masks now being widely used in the country following the confirmation of three COVID-19 cases, the health expert seems concern users may contract other diseases while trying to prevent Coronavirus.
Meanwhile, there have been different pieces of advice about the use of face masks. Some medical experts support the usage based on the number of cases in the area.
For example, one expert said, it might be effective to use a mask in a city where there are hundreds of cases with a high possibility of coming in contact with an infected person.
Does this mean Liberia does not fall in the "high-risk population" category due to the low number of cases?
At the time of writing, in addition to the country's three confirmed cases, there were also four suspected cases and some 390 persons, who have been listed as people who came in contact with those infected, health authorities have said.
There has been no death reported so far.
What Does the CDC Say?
Face masks are protection against large droplets or splashes of bodily and infected fluids from others, according to the United States' Center for Disease Control (CDC)
Also, the CDC warns that the wearing of face masks doesn't prevent the user from inhaling smaller airborne particles, and there's the possibility for other particles to "leak in or out of the sides" of the mask.
The CDC added that people who have flu-like symptoms need to wear masks, adding that COVID-19 also spreads from person to person by droplets from sneezes or coughs.
When an infected person sneezes or coughs, the droplets get onto surfaces, and when they are touched by a person, who later touches his or her eyes, nose or mouth, the virus may be transmitted, the CDC added.
According to an article published in Time quoting Dr. Saskia Popescu, a senior infection prevention epidemiologist, "people who aren't sick should not rely on masks as a way of preventing respiratory infections", because it offers "limited protection" against contracting illness.
While face masks can be helpful in stopping the spread of germs in certain situations -- like when people are in close quarters on a train or packed into a waiting room -- they are unlikely to stem the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the article added.
What does the WHO Say?
A health advisory on the use of face mask published January 29 by the World Health Organization states that "wearing a medical mask is one of the prevention measures to limit the spread of certain respiratory diseases" including COVID-19.
"However, the use of a mask alone is insufficient to provide the adequate level of protection and other equally relevant measures should be adopted," the WHO said, adding that the use of masks should be complemented with hand hygiene and other measures.
"Wearing medical masks when not indicated may cause unnecessary cost, procurement burden and create a false sense of security that can lead to neglecting other essential measures such as hand hygiene practices. Furthermore, using a mask incorrectly may hamper its effectiveness to reduce the risk of transmission."
Meanwhile, the WHO has clarified that COVID-19 is mainly transmitted by droplets. There has been confusion because of the term aerosol used by scientists, which is not the same as airborne.
Aerosol is the mixture of small liquid or solid particles dispersed in the air. COVID-19 droplets can be suspended in the air for a while, but they are too heavy to hang in the air for long, so they quickly fall on floors and surfaces.
But you can be infected by breathing in the virus if you are within 1 meter of a person who has COVID-19. Hospital staffs attending to COVID-19 are frequently exposed to these aerosols, which is why they should wear a mask all the time.
The evidence suggests that COVID-19 virus is transmitted between people through respiratory droplets and through contact routes. This means it spreads directly between people when coronavirus droplets reach the nose, mouth or eyes of an uninfected person, the WHO said during its regular update last week.