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To mask or not to mask

Conflicting messages from experts, government confuse citizens

March 5, 2020 - 16:50 By Kim Arin


New government guidelines issued Tuesday say face masks are not recommended for healthy individuals who are not having respiratory symptoms or fever. 

Instead, practicing social distance, maintaining good personal hygiene and keeping rooms well ventilated are the best ways to prevent infection, the Drug Safety Ministry said, stressing that people who are not at risk of contracting the virus do not need to wear masks.

Two situations where it is OK not to wear face masks are isolated spaces and outdoor areas that are not heavily congested, the ministry added.

The guidelines are intended to address the severe shortages of face masks across the country, which prompted the presidential office on Tuesday to call on government agencies to come up with emergency responses.

But making the call on whether to wear a face mask is more complicated than it needs to be, as the government recommendations contradict those of experts.

The Korean Medical Association’s guidelines advise wearing face masks when outside, for sick and healthy people alike, especially in crowded places like public transit.

The doctors’ group says wearing face masks protects not only the wearers but those around them.

In a meeting with reporters on Feb. 6, the Korean Society for Infectious Diseases said whether a virus patient was wearing a mask at the time of contact with others was one of the key considerations in determining the risk of exposure.

“This is not to say everyone is required to have face masks on, but it would definitely help when in crowds or when mingling indoors,” said the infectious disease specialists.

Choi Jae-wook, a preventive medicine specialist at Korea University Hospital, told The Korea Herald that the Drug Safety Ministry’s revised guidelines, asking asymptomatic individuals not to wear face masks, were “unsupported by medical opinions.”

“Clinical observations show there are infected patients who appear almost asymptomatic,” he said, explaining that deciding when to wear a mask based on symptoms would be ill-advised.

He said if one was isolated at home with minimal contact, masks would not be needed. But because most people still need to go on with their daily activities and spend the majority of the day indoors, most likely in close proximity to others, wearing masks was necessary.

“This is incredibly irresponsible of the ministry to tell the public in a health crisis,” he said. “And this goes against the principle of ‘social distancing.’”

Even if healthy people were to forgo masks, avoiding crowds would be almost impossible in densely populated Seoul, according to natives of the city.

Lee Jin-hee, who lives in the district of Seongbuk toward the city’s north end, said although the Health Ministry advised people to avoid public transportation, she didn’t have a choice but to commute via a packed subway. 

“The government says we don’t need a mask if we are healthy and keep a safe distance from other people. That’s just not a choice for subway or bus commuters,” she said. “Seeing that my company doesn’t allow us to work from home, that means I will be needing a mask every day.”

Health care workers also report having to go without.

“I have been using the same single-use mask without the recommended filters for five straight days now,” primary care physician Choi Seung-jun, who sits as the vice president of the medical association in Yongsan, a central Seoul district, said in a phone interview.

He said the medical association missed the chance to purchase the protective masks at the right time because the Health Ministry said they would be supplied to health workers by the government.

“The Yongsan Medical Association’s face mask orders all got canceled yesterday,” he said. “If we knew we would have to get them on our own, we wouldn’t have waited until it was too late.”

During the 2015 Middle East respiratory syndrome outbreak, state-supplied protective masks were provided to clinics and hospitals, he claimed. “Doctors didn’t have to worry about acquiring them at all.”

He said if there were not enough face masks to go around, medical workers should be given priority.

“If medical professionals are infected, the health system breaks down,” he said. “Meanwhile, citizens should stay home and away from crowds and practice personal hygiene habits.”

By Kim Arin (