We asked experts whether wearing a disposable mask will actually help protect you from coronavirus.
This story was first published on February 1, and was last updated on April 3. For the most recent advice on how to protect yourself during the COVID-19 pandemic, please visit the Australian government's Coronavirus (COVID-19) Health Alert website, or the World Health Organisation's public advice page.
As the COVID-19 pandemic unfolds, official advice and information is constantly changing, and it can be difficult to stay on top of the latest information.
At this point, it's likely that you've seen some conflicting information about who needs to wear a mask, and whether masks can actually do anything to protect you from the coronavirus.
It's important to make sure you're getting the latest information, to ensure that you're protecting yourself and your community adequately without hoarding resources in short supply. Here's the latest advice on whether it's necessary to wear a mask to protect yourself or your community from COVID-19.
Who needs to wear a mask right now?
Between February 1, when this article was first published, and April 3, when this article was last updated, the advice about masks issued by the World Health Organisation (WHO) and the Australian Government Department of Health has not changed.
Right now, both the WHO and the Australian government say that healthy people do not need to wear a surgical mask.
"Most people will not benefit from wearing a surgical mask," the Australian Department of Health advises. "Masks are of benefit to people who are unwell so they don't cough on others, and health care workers who have frequent, close contact with unwell people."
"People without symptoms who choose to wear a mask may be using masks needed for those groups where mask use is required."
Currently, the Australian government advises that masks should be worn by health care workers, people with confirmed cases of COVID-19, people with a suspected case of COVID-19, and people who have recently returned from a high-risk country or region. You can find advice tailored to each of those specific circumstances here.
If you are required to wear a mask, you should follow the advice of your doctor or primary care provider, who will let you know what kind of mask you should wear, as well as where and when to wear it.
The World Health Organisation's current advice on masks is similar, and includes instructions on safely removing and disposing of masks, which is just as important. Wearing a mask should always be accompanied by good hand-washing technique, social distancing, and other steps to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
Why have I heard different advice about wearing face masks in other countries? Could the Australian government's advice be wrong?
Recently, different advice about the use of face masks has been circulating in different countries.
On April 1, The Guardian reported that the WHO is considering changing its guidance on who should use face masks, and the US Center for Disease Control and Prevention has confirmed it is also reviewing its recommendations. Meanwhile, the Czech Republic and Slovakia have moved to make the wearing of face masks mandatory for all.
The reasons that different organisations and governments are considering changes vary, but they include suggestions that widespread wearing of face masks may have helped stem the spread of COVID-19 in some Asian countries, as well as increased information suggesting that people infected with coronavirus may be contagious before symptoms appear.
However, regardless of what you're hearing from other countries, it's important to follow the latest advice from the Australian Government. That's because the COVID-19 situation is not the same in all countries, and there are some crucial differences to consider.
Mary-Louise McLaws is a professor of epidemiology, hospital infection and infectious diseases control at UNSW, and an advisor to the World Health Organisation COVID-19 Infection Preparedness Group. She explained to The Feed that in her opinion, the current approach to masks in Australia is appropriate for the Australian outbreak pattern.
"I think what is happening is that each country has their own pattern, and is dealing with that pattern as best they can," Professor McLaws said.
"Our government has correctly understood that the greatest risk to our community was from travellers, who then were not always compliant with self-isolation. So now our government has brought in mandatory isolation of travellers, which takes that risk out of society, and will lower community spread."
That pattern of spread in Australia right now is different to the pattern in some other countries -- in some places, the biggest risk is not travellers, but the transmission of COVID-19 from unknown sources in densely populated cities.
A spokesperson for the Australian Department of Health told The Feed that Australia's Chief Medical Officer and expert committees are constantly reviewing the latest evidence about the use of masks here. They're also monitoring the mask supplies currently available in Australia, and the demand for these masks by the groups that need them most.
Across the world right now, there are shortages of personal protective equipment for many of the health care workers on the front lines of this pandemic. The supplies available in Australia at any given time are not necessarily the same as the supplies available in other countries right now, and we need to avoid putting further strain on these resources unless it's absolutely necessary.
Can I make my own mask out of a t-shirt or cloth?
You might have come across tutorials circulating online which show how to make your own protective mask out of an old t-shirt or piece of cloth.
Unfortunately, Professor McLaws and other experts say that this is not proven to be effective.
"The development of a mask is very complex, and the more it filters out a particle the more expensive it becomes. A cotton mask is considered to have the lowest level of filtration," Professor McLaws said.
"But if you want to make one, it's not going to do any harm -- as long as you don't use it as an excuse to stop social distancing."
What's the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus?
Right now in Australia, the best way to prevent the spread of coronavirus is to practice social distancing. You can find the latest government rules and recommendations on social distancing here.
And even if you are wearing a mask, you should still be taking these social distancing requirements seriously. That means staying at home unless it's absolutely necessary to go out, washing your hands regularly and with good technique, and practising good hygiene.
At the end of the day, if you're confused about what you should be doing, or whether the official advice has changed, your first stops should be the Australian government's Coronavirus (Covid-19) Health Alert website, and the World Health Organisation's public advice page.
People in Australia must stay at least 1.5 metres away from others and gatherings are limited to two people unless you are with your family or household.
If you believe you may have contracted the virus, call your doctor (don’t visit) or contact the national Coronavirus Health Information Hotline on 1800 020 080. If you are struggling to breathe or experiencing a medical emergency, call 000.
SBS is committed to informing Australia’s diverse communities about the latest COVID-19 developments. News and information is available in 63 languages at sbs.com.au/coronavirus