AN expert in biochemistry at University College Cork says everybody should be wearing face masks in Ireland for the next six months.
Tom Cotter has been Professor of Biochemistry at UCC since 1995 and his main research interests are in understanding cell death and survival mechanisms.
Speaking to The Echo, Professor Cotter explained that for society to safely reopen, Ireland must increase its testing capacity for Covid-19 and introduce an effective antibody test to determine whether people had the virus and have now recovered.
He warned that lockdown could be re-introduced if a virus surge occurs in the weeks and months ahead.
“It’s a watching and waiting game because we can’t afford to have another outbreak of this,” he added.
“The sooner we have the antibody tests and the capacity for increased testing, the better.”
The world is also playing a waiting game as it hopes for a vaccine, watching on with bated breath as scientists undergo trials across the globe.
Until such a time as an effective vaccine is freely available, Professor Cotter said there are things the general public can do to protect themselves.
“If people observe social distancing, wear masks and wash their hands, it will go a long way towards protecting them,” he said.
“I wouldn’t advise people to wear gloves as it gives people a false sense of security and still allows people to pass it on by hand.”
The Cork lecturer emphasised the importance of people wearing protective masks, even homemade ones, where possible.
“If you look at the scientific data coming out at the moment, particularly from Asian countries who’ve been through this before with SARS and MERS, masks do offer protection,” he said.
“The problem at the moment is that they’re so difficult to get.
“They’re needed for frontline workers first - then if they have enough, the rest of the population should be wearing them,” he added.
“I think everybody should be wearing them.
“Everybody who lives in a city or large town should be wearing a mask, particularly at the moment.
"This is a virus that loves density.
“That’s why you’ll see spikes in cases in areas of high density and why it has been so devastating in care homes.”
Professor Cotter explained that there are two reasons for wearing a mask.
“One is if anybody has the virus but they’re asymptomatic, a mask will prevent them from spreading the virus, even if they don’t know they have it.
“The second,” he said, “is that wearing a mask offers protection to people who don’t have the virus.
“We’re seeing that in a lot of asian countries at the moment - they have to wear masks in South Korea when they go out - and I think people should have to wear masks in Ireland when they go out as well.
“The virus spreads through the air and there are some instances, such as shopping or on transport, where it’s very hard to maintain the two metre distance, and wearing a mask offers protection in this regard,” he added.
Professor Cotter emphasised that people must be careful in how they use masks.
“I’ve seen people in supermarkets wearing masks and they’re touching their face, pulling it to fix it,” he said.
“People need to put it on before they go out and make sure they do not touch it until they get home.
“If it’s a homemade cloth mask, it’s easy enough to sterilise by placing it in a sibh and using the steam from a kettle to sterilise it,” he added.
“Any masks that are bought can also be sterilised quite easily as well.”
When asked how long the need for masks might pervade, Professor Cotter replied:
“This is going to go on for months, maybe until we have a vaccine, and that could be early next year.
“I think people could be wearing masks and having to adhere to social distancing for easily six months."