Should I wear a mask during the COVID-19 pandemic?

It is quite astounding to think that five months ago barely anyone outside of China had heard of Coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). As bells tolled and fireworks exploded to mark the end of 2019 and the start of 2020, a little known Chinese province called Wuhan was on its way to global recognition, for all the wrong reasons. As we moved into a new year and a new decade, little did many of us know quite how tumultuous the start of 2020 would be.

Move forward to April and it is hard to imagine anyone not knowing what COVID-19 is. Social media and the sensationalist press have made us all experts. The headlines scream out worse case scenarios, schools are closed, events are cancelled, face masks, sanitiser and (somewhat bizarrely) toilet roll sales have escalated exponentially. Rumours and conspiracy theories are rife; opinion pieces are cited as fact and a simple scroll through social media, reveals post after post on the topic.

I write articles for a women’s health platform; I spend my days researching topics that I think will be of interest to our target audience. I have written about fertility issues, cancer, pregnancy and postnatal depression; I have even penned a more personal piece on our experience of absence seizures. I have researched areas that I thought I had no personal interest in and topics that are unlikely to ever impact me directly. I have always learnt from it and I have never approached a topic with quite as much trepidation as I approach COVID-19.

Why is this the case?

COVID-19 is impacting my day to day life; my children are currently unable to attend school and nursery and my daughter will spend the remainder of the school year completing ‘at home learning’ whereby her teacher sends work home for her to complete with our help and support. Mid way through March 2020, all cinemas, gyms, soft play areas, community parks and swimming pools in our region closed and there is no sign of them reopening in the coming weeks. In April, in Dubai, we underwent a period of complete lockdown, where only one member of a family could leave the house, with a police permit, every three days. Children were prohibited from leaving at all. Most people are probably well acquainted with the phrases ‘social distancing’ and ‘flattening the curve’ by now.

As an expatriate living in Dubai, I have always been confident that I could get ‘home’ with minimal notice. Now, however, at a time when flights to and from various destinations are being cancelled and government policies and guidelines are changing daily, I can no longer be certain of this. Suddenly, home seems to be awfully far away.

I have my personal feelings on the virus, the spread of information, the steps that are being taken in an attempt to contain it. I read things I agree with and things I definitely do not agree with, but one thing I knew was that I did not want to add to the wealth of opinion pieces on the topic. So I postponed writing about COVID-19.

However, I believe it would be amiss of Nabta, as a healthcare platform, not to provide information; so I looked on the websites of trusted organisations, the WHO, the CDC and the NHS and I wrote based on the advice they were giving. No rumours, no opinions, no conspiracies, just the facts, as of today. Of course this is an evolving situation and the statistics and the guidelines are changing constantly, but what do we know today?

1) As of March 11th 2020, the COVID-19 outbreak has been declared a pandemic by the WHO.
Pandemic: The worldwide spread of a new disease.

Of course with reported cases growing and the numbers (of people and countries) affected increasing daily, it was probably only a matter of time before this call was made. It does not mean that the virus has suddenly become more deadly or more infectious, but it is becoming more widespread.

2) What is COVID-19?
The Coronaviruses are a large family of viruses, known to cause respiratory distress. COVID-19 is the most recently discovered. It is related to the SARS (severe acute respiratory system) virus, but not the same. SARS is more deadly, but less infectious than COVID-19.

3) How is COVID-19 spread?
It is thought that the main mode of transmission is via respiratory droplets passing from one person to another. This means that when a person who is infected coughs or exhales, they are potentially spreading the virus to those in close proximity. Acquiring the disease in this manner is less likely if you maintain a distance of 1.5 metres or more and try to avoid touching your mouth, nose and eyes. There is a risk of infection by touching an infected surface and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth. This is not, however, thought to be the main mode of spread. It is not yet known how long the virus can survive on surfaces, but cleaning with a simple disinfectant should be sufficient to kill it.

People can have the disease, but remain symptom-free for up to 14 days. This is known as the incubation period and represents a high-risk time for transmission of the condition. The exact duration of the incubation period is an estimate based on the longest incubation period seen with other, similar, coronaviruses.

4) What are the symptoms of COVID-19?
The main symptoms of COVID-19 are fever, tiredness and a dry cough. Other recognised symptoms include the loss of a person’s sense of smell or taste. In severe cases an infected person can develop pneumonia. Approximately 80% of people will recover without needing specialised, medical treatment and some people will remain asymptomatic. Unfortunately one of the biggest challenges in reducing the spread is that those who have no symptoms, or only mild symptoms, can still pass the disease on to others. To date, it seems as though young people and children are likely to get a mild version of COVID-19. Those at most risk of developing a serious illness are the elderly and those with underlying health issues, such as high blood pressure, diabetes and heart disease.

5) Is there a cure for COVID-19?
There is currently no cure for COVID-19 and healthcare efforts need to go into managing the symptoms. Antibiotics are not an option as they do not cure viruses. Researchers are working on developing a vaccine, but this will take time.

6) Finally, be careful of what you read and what information you pass on to others.
Whilst easy to believe the headlines, be aware that not everything that is published on the World Wide Web is scientifically sound. The WHO guidelines to date have remained simple and concise:

  • Clean hands regularly and thoroughly. The virus can be killed by soap and water or an alcohol-based hand wash.
  • Practice good respiratory hygiene; cover your mouth when coughing or sneezing and immediately discard used tissues.
  • If you have symptoms of COVID-19 and/or have recently visited a country where COVID-19 is spreading, adopt self quarantine for 14 days to reduce the risk of spread.
  • Follow the guidelines of your local health authority. These will differ depending on where in the world you are. Countries with mass outbreaks are likely to have more stringent measures in place. In China the outbreak has been contained and transmission slowed. This shows the value in following government advice and adhering to local policies and restrictions.
  • Wear a face mask and gloves if recommended to do so by your local health authority.

The WHO releases a situation report everyday, summarising the latest developments. I have been reading these over the last few days, whilst constructing this article. At a time when there are so many unknowns and so many unanswered questions, relying on trustworthy sources for any new information is key. There is a lot of talk across social media about the responsibility we all have to implement ‘social distancing’, but I believe we also have a responsibility to consider carefully the stories we spread.

Over time the COVID-19 outbreak will teach us a lot; the statistics and figures will prove invaluable for epidemiologists, scientists will increase their knowledge of infectious diseases and, particularly, the family of coronaviruses. We will, for the first time, be able to look at the impact of social media on a pandemic. In the meantime, these are worrying times, stay safe, follow health authority guidelines and maintain good personal hygiene.

Nabta is reshaping women’s healthcare. We support women with their personal health journeys, from everyday wellbeing to the uniquely female experiences of fertility, pregnancy, and menopause

Get in touch if you have any questions about this article or any aspect of women’s health. We’re here for you. 


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