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Coronavirus and face masks

Should I wear a face mask and where can I buy one?


Fact checked

The World Health Organisation has recently changed its advice on whether or not people should wear masks. The advice now is that masks should be worn in public where social distancing is not possible to help stop the spread of coronavirus.

Latest updates on coronavirus and face masks

Tuesday, 28 April: While the Australian government has not changed its stance on wearing face masks in public, UNSW professor Bill Bowtell said that face masks should be mandatory as lockdown restrictions are eased.

Friday, 24 April: Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Chief Medical Officer Brendan Murphy urged Australians not to wear face masks unless they are sick because low-quality masks can provide a false sense of security.

Wednesday, 22 April: Six counties in the Bay Area that make up about 5 million people – San Francisco, San Mateo, Alameda, Contra Costa and Marin – have announced orders to require people to wear masks starting Wednesday.

Tuesday, 21 April: Orange County joins a growing list of California counties requiring face masks or coverings for employees at retail businesses. This includes grocery stores, gas stations and restaurants. The mandate goes into effect on Friday, 24 April.

Monday, 20 April: Hawaii residents must wear a face mask when in public places, using public transportation or ordering at a drive-through. Violators could face up to a $5,000 fine or up to a year in prison, according to Governor David Ige's order.

Monday, 20 April: Several Bay Area counties join neighbouring counties already requiring the public to wear facial coverings or masks in public, including in essential businesses and on public transit. The ordinance is effective as of Friday, with enforcement going into effect on Wednesday, 22 April at 8am

Monday, 20 April: Connecticut residents over the age of two must wear a face mask in public if they cannot maintain six feet of distance from others, effective 20 April. Employees and customers of any age must also wear face masks inside essential businesses.

Saturday, 18 April: Australia received 58 million face masks, which will be distributed to healthcare workers. Health Minister Greg Hunt said the new stock is for those who will benefit from the masks, including frontline workers and Australians who are sick.

Saturday, 18 April: Essential workers in Rhode Island must wear a cloth face mask while working unless they are able to maintain six feet of distance from others. Businesses are to provide facial coverings to employees.

Friday, 17 April: Governor Andrew Cuomo issued an executive order requiring New Yorkers to wear face coverings over their nose and mouth when in a public place. The ordinance includes anybody over the age of 2 and able to medically tolerate a mask. The order goes into effect on Friday, 17 April at 8pm.

Friday, 17 April: Sonoma County Public Health Officer Dr. Sundari Mase signed an order that states the public wear facial coverings before entering indoor facilities other than their homes, any enclosed open spaces or while outdoors and unable to maintain at least six feet of distance between people. The ordinance includes children aged 2 and older. The order goes into effect on Friday, 17 April at 12:01am.

Thursday, 16 April: Officials in Missouri report a recall of KN95 face masks the state paid $17 million for that don't appear to meet Illinois Department of Health performance standards.

Wednesday, 15 April: Pennsylvania state health secretary signed an order Wednesday that states all essential businesses that are open during coronavirus must turn away customers who are not wearing masks. The order establishes other safety protocols for businesses to try to continue operating safely. The order goes into effect on Sunday, 19 April at 8pm. Read the full text from Dr. Rachel Levine.

Wednesday, 14 April: Governor Gina Raimondo signed an emergency declaration requiring face masks in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. Employers must also provide employees with face masks or the materials to make one.

Wednesday, 8 April: New Jersey became the first state to order that all customers and employees wear a face mask while inside essential businesses, on construction sites and using public transportation. Businesses are to turn away customers who do not comply.

Thursday, 2 April: Online giant Amazon has announced that it is no longer accepting public orders for N95 face masks in its effort to prioritize essential supplies, including coronavirus tests, to hospitals and government agencies. It's also forgoing a profit from such sales.



Two of the biggest health authorities in the world, the World Health Organization (WHO) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), have different views on whether we should be wearing face masks.

The World Health Organization recommends only people who are sick or caring for someone who is sick should wear a face mask.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests anyone should wear a cloth face covering in public where social distancing is difficult to maintain, such as in a grocery store or chemist and "especially in areas of significant community-based transmission".

However, each country has specific recommendations for wearing masks. Out of 124 countries that were analysed, 81 countries – or 65% – have either made mask-wearing a recommendation or mandatory in part or all of their country. One in three countries researched (33%) have made mask-wearing in public mandatory, some with heavy fines if people don't comply.

There is also a correlation between mask-wearing countries and a moving regression of the COVID-19 cases and death rates, which means wearing a mask could be slowing the spread of coronavirus.

For example, the United States has recently recommended the wearing of cloth masks throughout the country. The epicentre, New York, has made masks mandatory. Since the recommendation came into place on 3 April, the US has seen a steady decline in the growth rate of COVID-19.

Statista chart

Statista chart Image: Supplied

Alternatively, in countries such as the United Kingdom, where masks are still not recommended, the growth rate of COVID-19 continues to increase despite other measures being put in place. Currently, trend data in the UK illustrates that since the onset of the virus in the country, growth has exponentially increased, although since 3 April, there have been periods when the number of new cases has been lower than the day before.

Statistic: Number of new coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in the United Kingdom (UK) since January 2020 (as of April 22, 2020), by date of report | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

In Italy, face masks were made mandatory in some parts of the country on 6 April 2020. Since then, the growth rate has steadily decreased. Before that time, Italy had one of the highest growth rates of COVID-19 in the world. However, the nation has seen a significant drop since the new measure was introduced.

Statistic: Number of new Coronavirus (COVID-19) cases in Italy since February 2020 (as of April 22, 2020), by date of report | Statista
Find more statistics at Statista

Many Western countries are recommending cloth masks over surgical masks due to the shortage in supply, following measures put in place by Eastern countries. This global shift to recommending face masks in many countries around the world has seen a decrease in their national growth rate of COVID-19.

Although other preventative measures have been put in place, face masks are an additional source of intervention that could be slowing the spread of the disease.

How to make your own face mask

If P2 or N95 masks are hard to find or out of stock online, consider sewing your own. Guides like this one from The New York Times outline the steps that can have you wearing a cloth mask in an hour or two. If you have a small swatch of fabric about the size of a napkin, shoelaces, scissors, and a needle and thread, you can make a mask without additional supplies.

Your face mask questions answered

Do I need to wear a face mask?

While some countries have mandatory face mask rules and others do not, in Australia, the Department of Health advises that most people will not benefit from wearing a surgical mask. Only those who are sick, are suspected to have coronavirus or are healthcare workers should wear a mask.

What face mask should I buy?

If you are a healthcare worker, you should use an N95 or P2 mask. If you are unwell, you should use a surgical mask.

What are the differences between each type of face mask?

  • Cloth masks: Cloth masks prevent large droplets released by the wearer from reaching the environment. They do not filter bacteria or viruses. Cloth masks minimise the risk of transmission by people who don't have symptoms through talking, coughing or sneezing.
  • Surgical masks/disposable masks: Large droplets released by the individual wearing the mask do not reach the environment. Large droplets and splashes, which contain bacteria or viruses, are also prevented from reaching the wearer. Surgical masks are able to filter 95% of bacteria.
  • N95 respirators and P2 masks: They block out both large and small droplets from reaching your mouth and nose. N95 masks also filter out 95% of particles (including particles as small as 0.3 microns). N95 masks are tight fitting and are ideal for healthcare professionals as they can be fitted properly. These masks shouldn't be used for extended periods.
  • KN95 masks: These masks filter 95% of bacteria and are the Chinese standard for the N95 mask. They can block out both small and large droplets, filter air particles and help stop the spread of the virus.
  • DS2 and DL2 masks: These are Japanese standard masks for protection against dust. They can filter 95% of airborne particles. They offer the same level of protection as P2 masks.

Depending on your location, different face mask types are more widely used. For example, in the United States and Canada, N95 are common; in Australia and New Zealand, you'll see P2 masks more often; in China, KN95 is the standard. Mask manufacturer 3M, which specialises in filtering facepiece respirator (FFR) masks, offers the following explanation of the main differences between each mask type.

Korea 1st Class
Filter performance ≥ 95%≥ 95%≥ 95%≥ 94%≥ 94%≥ 95%
Test agentNaClNaCl and paraffin oilNaClNaClNaCl and paraffin oilNaCl
Flow rate85 L/min95 L/min85 L/min95 L/min95 L/min85 L/min
Total inward leakage (TIL) N/A≤ 8% leakage ≤ 8% leakage ≤ 8% leakage ≤ 8% leakage Inward Leakage measured and included in User Instructions
Inhalation resistance ≤ 343 Pa≤ 70 Pa (at 30L/min)≤ 240 Pa (at 95 L/min)≤ 500 Pa (clogging)≤ 350 Pa≤ 70 Pa (at 30L/min)≤ 240 Pa (at 95L/min)≤ 70 Pa (at 30L/min)≤ 240 Pa (at 95L/min)≤ 70 Pa (w/valve)≤ 50 Pa (no valve)
Flow rate85L/minVaried – seeabove85L/minVaried – seeaboveVaried – seeabove40L/min
Exhalation resistance ≤ 245 Pa≤ 300 Pa≤ 250 Pa≤ 120 Pa≤ 300 Pa≤ 70 Pa (w/valve) ≤ 50 Pa (no valve)
Flow rate85L/min160L/min85L/min85L/min160L/min40L/min
Exhalation valve leakage requirementLeak rate ≤ 30mL/minN/ADepressurization to 0 Pa ≥ 20 secLeak rate ≤ 30mL/minVisual inspection after 300L /min for 30 secDepressurization to 0 Pa ≥ 15sec
Force applied-245 PaN/A-1180 Pa-250 PaN/A-1,470 Pa
CO2 clearance requirementN/A≤ 1%≤ 1%≤ 1%≤ 1%≤ 1%

Source: 3M

How effective are disposable masks?

Disposable masks or surgical masks are not as effective as N95 or P2 masks. However, if you are a healthcare worker, or have flu-like symptoms, you should use one. The best way to use a disposable mask is to not touch your face, nose or eyes while you have the mask on. Don't touch the mask and use the elastic to remove it. Dispose of the mask after one use and wash your hands after disposing of it. Following these precautionary steps can increase the effectiveness of disposable masks.

Is a face mask effective?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when worn in a community setting, a face mask is effective in slowing down the spread of the virus. However, it is not a measure that should be taken instead of social distancing, frequent hand cleaning and other preventive measures put in place. A face mask is most effective when it is used in conjunction with preventive measures. Like a flu vaccine, masks help reduce your chance of spreading the virus, but there is no guarantee that you will be safe.

How often should I buy a new face mask? How long do they last?

It depends on the type you are using. If you're using a cloth face mask, you should wash it after every use. However, if you are using a disposable mask, it should be disposed of straight after each use.

Will a mask protect me from COVID-19?

Wearing a face mask is not a guaranteed source of protection against the virus; however, it can assist in slowing the spread. Face masks are a great precautionary step to take, especially if you have symptoms of COVID-19 (such as a cold, coughing or sneezing, fever and shortness of breath). Wearing a mask will help avoid spreading germs.

Health tips for wearing face masks

The WHO and Department of Health have various tips for wearing face masks. These include the following:

    • Wear a face mask if you are sick
    • Wear a mask if you are taking care of someone who has the virus or is demonstrating virus-like symptoms
    • Wear a mask if you are a frontline worker
    • Wash your hands before and after wearing a mask
    • Disposable masks should be disposed of in closed bins after every use
    • Do not keep touching the mask; if you touch it, wash or sanitise your hands straight after
    • Do not share masks

How to fit your mask properly

When putting a mask, a tight seal should be created against your nose and mouth. Use the instructions provided with your mask for correct fit. You should test that a seal has been created by exhaling heavily. Air should not escape through any cracks. If a seal hasn't been created, re-fit and test again.

How to remove your mask properly

First, be sure to wash your hands thoroughly before putting on your mask. When you're ready to take it off, do not touch the front of the mask – it could be contaminated. Instead, remove it by pulling the bottom strap over the back of your head, followed by the top strap. Discard the mask and then wash your hands.

If masks are useful in protecting us against the virus, why are we being told to not buy them?

Like washing your hands properly and practising social distancing, masks can slow the spread of COVID-19. However, they are not in abundance. Currently, there is a shortage of masks in supply, which means they need to be rationed and given to those who are working on the frontline or showing symptoms of the virus. When there is an increase in the supply of masks, they need to be first made available to those who are at a higher risk and then to the general public.

Should I share a mask with my family?

No. The bottom line is that you shouldn't be sharing a mask with anyone. Even if it is your partner or child and you live in the same household, this is something you shouldn't do. As the virus is spreading so rapidly, extra measures need to be taken and good hygiene practices need to be adopted. Sharing a mask will reduce the effectiveness of this preventative measure.

Read more about different types of face masks

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