Physician anesthesiologist at Stanford at Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group
Richard Novak, MD is a Stanford physician board certified in anesthesiology and internal medicine.Dr. Novak is an Adjunct Clinical Professor in the Department of Anesthesiology, Perioperative and Pain Medicine at Stanford University, the Medical Director at Waverley Surgery Center in Palo Alto, California, and a member of the Associated Anesthesiologists Medical Group in Palo Alto, California.
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During the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve been told not to wear a face mask if we don’t have viral symptoms.

Is this a mistake? Can a face mask save your life? I’m not talking about an N-95 mask, which blocks virus entry into your nose and mouth, and which are in short supply even for health care professionals during this pandemic, but a typical surgical mask, as pictured above.

Today I’m forwarding excellent information from a post by American viral specialist, James Robb MD, Fellow of the College of American Pathologists, a former Professor of Pathology at the University of California San Diego, and one of the first molecular virologists in the world to work on coronaviruses in the 1970s.

Dr. Robb is a proponent of individuals wearing surgical masks in public during a pandemic. He writes: 

“Stock up now with disposable surgical masks and use them to prevent you from touching your nose and/or mouth (We touch our nose/mouth 90X/day without knowing it!). This is the only way this virus can infect you – it is lung-specific. The mask will not prevent the virus in a direct sneeze from getting into your nose or mouth – it is only to keep you from touching your nose or mouth.

“The virus is on surfaces . . . This virus only has cell receptors for lung cells (it only infects your lungs). The only way for the virus to infect you is through your nose or mouth via your hands or an infected cough or sneeze onto or into your nose or mouth.”

This is a controversial recommendation. There are currently not enough surgical masks for everyone in the United States to be wearing one, but a face mask forms an effective blockade to an individual touching their own mouth and nose. The most common form of transmission of COVID-19 is likely autoinoculation of the virus from our hands to our nose, mouth, and eyes.

Dr. Jerome Adams, the Surgeon General of the United States, an anesthesiologist himself, and a professional I have tremendous respect for, tweeted this advice on February 29th, 2020:

“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! 
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

It’s true that a typical surgical mask will not prevent you from inhaling the COVID-19 virus. And it’s also true that the medical teams in the United States need to have an adequate supply of surgical masks. But during this pandemic the facts are:  a) those doctors and nurses who are actually caring for or screening for coronavirus patients are wearing specialized N-95 masks, not regular surgical masks; and b) the need for surgical masks in the hospital has markedly declined because elective surgery in the United States is grinding to a halt during the current shutdown. Santa Clara County, where I practice in California, received a CDC recommendation that all elective and non-urgent surgical procedures be cancelled, and we are complying with this shutdown.

What if everyone in the United States started wearing a surgical mask all day? I’m not talking about an N-95 mask, which has twin elastic bands and forms a tight seal where the edges meet your skin. I’m talking about the looser version commonly worn in operating rooms. A tight N-95 mask is uncomfortable and will be often adjusted, necessitating multiple touching of the mask with your hands, which is could transmit the virus to the surface of the mask:

A looser fitting surgical mask is not uncomfortable, and is both a barrier to touch and a reminder not to touch one’s nose and mouth:

Is there any data that the barrier to touching their noses and mouths would slow the spread of COVID-19? No, there is no data, and there will not be anytime soon because no one has time to do such a study right now. But it’s common sense, as Dr. Robb recommends above, that preventing hand to face transmission is a vital part of curbing the spread of the virus.

On February 28th, 2020 a surgical colleague of mine who had just returned from Asia came to work and did surgery in one of our outpatient operating rooms here in California. One week later he was diagnosed with COVID-19 infection, and he was hospitalized. All the nurses, doctors, and techs who were present at work that day were placed on 14-day surveillance for the onset of COVID-19 symptoms, i.e. fever, cough, or shortness of breath. Sixteen days later, none of them have developed any symptoms of COVID-19. One of the reasons we attribute this positive outcome to is that all the doctors, nurses, and techs, as well as the infected surgeon, were wearing face masks. Almost no one will touch their nose and mouth if they are wearing a mask, and no one who is scrubbed in for surgery can touch their nose or mouth.

On March 12, 2020, in coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic, Time Magazine published an article Why Wearing a Face Mask is Encouraged in Asia, But Shunned in the U.S.” In Asia it became commonplace for individuals to wear face masks after the COVID-19 outbreak. They don’t have any data. They’re just worried.

We all should be worried at this point. If you cannot stop touching your mouth, nose, and face, and you can acquire a face mask, then consider wearing it. You don’t have to have a clean one each day. It’s not to prevent you from coughing on others, it’s to prevent you from touching your own face.

Is there any harm to wearing a face mask if you have one? I don’t think so. The benefit/risk ratio is high. Protect yourself and your family.