Sat | Oct 31, 2020

Garth A. Rattray | Should everyone wear a mask?

Published:Monday | April 6, 2020 | 12:17 AM
Masks protect us from one another.
Masks protect us from one another.

THE FACT that so many people are becoming infected with the SARS-CoV-2 virus suggests that we have been missing something essential. We know that we need proper personal protective equipment (PPE) when treating or otherwise coming into close contact with symptomatic COVID-19 patients. However, up to the writing of this piece, many established experts have been telling us that masks, other than the N95, offer minimal protection against COVID-19.

The mainstay of prevention remains hygiene and social distancing. We were told to keep two metres away from others. However, although droplets are expelled with coughs and/or sneezes, micrometre (infectious) particles are also expelled with coughing/sneezing, and even during regular conversation. They can hang around for several hours, especially in closed environments. Therefore, we could be inhaling SARS-CoV-2 viruses unknowingly.

Social distancing is difficult to enforce. For example, downtown Kingston remains abuzz with commercial activities on the streets. After all, poor people are living hand to mouth and must ‘eat a food’.

Customers line up back-to-belly outside banks, and I witnessed a dense throng of people congregating outside the new Metropolitan Parks and Markets office on Hagley Park Road. I was informed that they were collecting their pay.

These activities are sure to severely negatively impact our fight against COVID-19. Many people are going to become ill and die as a direct result of those activities. In spite of the Government’s monumental efforts, Jamaicans are not taking COVID-19 seriously enough.

Many believe that everyone should wear a mask for three reasons:

1. They stop (symptomatic and asymptomatic) infected people from spreading the virus;

2. They help us not to touch our faces; and

3. They help to keep the dose of infection low, if spread occurs in spite of wearing a mask.

If someone has a cough, most of the particles expelled will be trapped in the mask. Additionally, some estimates claim that perhaps up to 86 per cent of COVID-19 spread is from people who have little or no symptoms and are out and about, inadvertently shedding and spreading the potentially deadly virus. Hence the wisdom of social distancing.

Touching your face is almost inevitable. The urge and habit are powerful. Little itches and niggling sensations make us want to put our hands on our faces innumerable times every day. Wearing a mask not only guards our noses and mouths, it serves to remind us that our faces are out of bounds.


Then there is the concept of the variable dose of infective particles that one receives. If we receive a small amount of the COVID-2 virus, our immune systems have time to assess and interact with them. It is therefore likely that, in otherwise healthy individuals, a small dose of the virus will only result in a mild to moderate course of the disease. However, a large dose can severely pressure or even overwhelm our immune systems and result in a severe, perhaps fatal course of the disease.

The Czech Republic insisted that everyone who goes outdoors must wear a mask. People manufactured millions of home-made masks out of available cloth materials. This, they fervently assert, along adherence to hygiene rules, social distancing, staying home, avoiding touching the face and appropriate testing, is how they flattened their COVID-19 infection curve and saved lives.

Masks need to be handled hygienically, and discarded or sanitised repeatedly. Some suggest washing cloth masks, using natural sunlight or placing them in a paper bag then into a (turned-off) but preheated oven at 75 degrees Centigrade (167 degrees Fahrenheit) for 30 minutes. Even bandanas are said to offer some protection.

Masks protect us from one another; so I no longer feel embarrassed wearing one when I venture out into our hazardous biosphere.

Garth A. Rattray is a medical doctor with a family practice. Email feedback to and