Kathriona Devereux: Six reasons to wear a face mask

There is mounting evidence that face coverings slow the spread of transmission of COVID-19 and wearing them now will protect us from further resurgences, writes Kathriona Devereux
Kathriona Devereux: Six reasons to wear a face mask
A preschooler wears a mask at Bradford School in Jersey City. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

THERE is a first time for everything and last week I did my first supermarket shop wearing a face mask.

I didn’t wear a mask throughout the worst of the crisis so it felt strange to be donning one now when the number of new cases is so low.

However, the scientific evidence is mounting that face coverings slow the spread of transmission and as we start interacting with each other more masks are important tools to protect us from future resurgences.

Here are a few reasons why wearing a face mask is a good idea.

Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin
Dr Tony Holohan, Chief Medical Officer, Department of Health. Picture: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

1. Tony told us to

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Tony Holohan recommends the wearing of a face covering on public transport, inside shops and public places where social distancing is difficult.

We have been following his and the NPHET’s advice for months now and it has served us well so why are many reluctant to adopt this public health advice?

Perhaps it’s because we feel the worst is over and wearing a face mask feels a bit drastic when the perceived risk is low. Or perhaps it’s because the advice about face masks hasn’t been definitive from the start. The communication around washing hands and coughing or sneezing into our elbows has been unequivocal but communication around face masks has been confusing.

There was also the worry about diverting crucial PPE away from frontline workers.

Since March scientific evidence about the effectiveness of face masks at limiting transmission has mounted. The WHO now recommends the wearing of face masks to lower the rate of transmission and considers it another tool along with handwashing, cough etiquette and social distancing to protect us all.

Studies have shown that infectious droplets can be released during breathing and speaking by asymptomatic infected individuals. Wearing a mask reduces exposure to these droplets.

GRAPHIC: V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE. From Prather et al., Science 27 May 2020:
GRAPHIC: V. ALTOUNIAN/SCIENCE. From Prather et al., Science 27 May 2020:

2. Protect workers

As the country opens up again retail and public transport workers are going to be coming into contact with more people, who have been in contact with more people who have been in contact with more people. You get the picture. Only four weeks into the easing of restrictions the close contacts of newly confirmed Covid-19 cases are between 4-5.

When we were all staying at home in April and May that number was under 2. Wearing masks in public settings reduces the exposure of customer-facing workers.

3. A new norm

Only a few months ago people went to work “dying with a cold”, sneezed and coughed in public places with abandon and washed their hands occasionally during the day. That has all changed and the wearing of face masks will too.

Yes, wearing face masks feels hot, your glasses may steam up a bit and there are important rules to remember in terms of how to safely use them but if the last few months have taught us anything it’s that we can adapt. Let’s see face masks as a positive change.

Every person you see wearing one is a person who cares about you, the country and protecting fellow citizens from the scourge of Covid-19.

Two people wearing protective face masks pass window dispays at Selfridge's on Oxford Street, London. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire
Two people wearing protective face masks pass window dispays at Selfridge's on Oxford Street, London. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA Wire

4. It’s not mandatory

Some people think if something isn’t mandatory that it isn’t important — childhood immunisations aren’t mandatory but that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t vaccinate their children. They should because public health is a team sport and the more people who play by the rules the better for us all. Not making face masks mandatory protects the small minority who can’t wear a face covering, for whatever reason, from discrimination.

Thankfully if you do have to nip to the shop for a bottle of milk and your face masks are in the wash no one is going to tut at you or bar you from entry. However if we all make the effort to increase our use of face masks in general we lower the risk of transmission.

A woman wearing a protective face mask shelters from the rain on Dublin's O'Connell street. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
A woman wearing a protective face mask shelters from the rain on Dublin's O'Connell street. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

5. Solidarity with the vulnerable

Older and medically vulnerable people, and their close family and friends, will take all the precautions they can to prevent themselves from catching the virus. If more people wear a face covering those people will feel less exceptional and more protected when they venture out. Wearing a face covering on public transport and in shops is a simple gesture of solidarity to a significant proportion of the population.

6. Keep Cork Safe

If the arguments above aren’t compelling enough can I appeal to the rebel in you? A month ago CUH Infectious Disease Consultant Dr Corinna Sadlier said in this paper that “The community in Cork flattened the curve beyond what I would have expected was possible,” but warned us “not to take our eye of the ball”.

Cork had the sixth-lowest rate of confirmed Covid-19 cases per 100,000 which Dr Sadlier said was “remarkable” given that Cork city is the second biggest city in the country.

I like to think that remarkable performance was because everyone knows everyone in Cork — or are just one or two degrees of separation away from knowing.

Rebellious Corkonians were extremely compliant at staying at home because we wanted to mind each other and protect each other from the dire scenes that were emerging in Italy. Despite our “remarkable” performance at least 40 people tragically died in Cork from Covid 19.

If the small act of wearing a face mask further reduces the risk of my fellow Corkonians getting sick and possibly dying in the future I’m willing to do what it takes to keep the numbers down.

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