DIY surgical masks won't protect against COVID-19, Halifax expert says

An infectious disease specialist in Halifax says an online fad for making homemade surgical masks won't protect against coronavirus infections, and may actually do more harm than good.

Videos on Facebook and YouTube demonstrate how to create masks out of everything from reusable shopping bags to cloth swatches from fabric stores.

"We don't know for sure ... how they work. That's not science, that's kind of just stuff that people have been trying out," said Dr. Lisa Barrett, a professor at Dalhousie's medical school and infectious disease researcher at the QEII Health Sciences Centre.

"It gives you a false sense of security."

Barrett said coronavirus is spread by droplets created when an infected person sneezes or coughs, which quickly fall out of the air.

She said this is why standing two metres away from a sick person is the best protection.

"I think it's amazing that people want to be helpful, and I think the most helpful thing people can do is not necessarily to make homemade masks," Barrett said. 

"It's really and truly to stay at home, and to wash your hands, don't touch your face, and to disinfect surfaces that are high-touch."


Barrett said masks do offer some protection for people who must be closer than two metres from people with COVID-19.

Those most in need are health-care workers.

Barrett said it's "a real possibility" there will be a mask shortage in Canada in the coming weeks.

"The best way to prevent that is not making homemade masks," she said. "It's to maintain social distance so that we don't end up with a ton more cases."

Barrett said people living with a COVID-19 patient at home might gain some protection from a manufactured face mask. 

Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

She said people at home with COVID-19 should be able to take care of themselves and should maintain distance from others in the household.

"It's not a catastrophe if you don't have a mask at home when you care for someone with symptoms, follow the other guidelines as much as you can," said Barrett.

Those unable to care from themselves should seek medical attention.

A key period ahead 

Barrett emphasized that Nova Scotia — which had 73 cases as of Thursday — is entering a key phase in fighting the coronavirus.

"While I applaud all kinds of efforts, the thing that's gonna make Canadians heroes, each and every one of them, is staying home and maintaining the social distance," she said.

"That distancing is going to be key. It's not over. It's just starting. Keep at it for the next number of weeks so that we don't need masks for too many people."