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Face masks: are they really helpful in the fight against coronavirus?

A pedestrian wore a surgical mask as he checked his phone while walking along London's Regent Street in central London on this week. 
 NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images
A pedestrian wore a surgical mask as he checked his phone while walking along London's Regent Street in central London on this week. NIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty ImagesNIKLAS HALLE'N/AFP via Getty Images

Since the coronavirus was first reported in the US, sales of surgical masks at local drugstores have surged and the masks are an increasingly common sight around Boston.

While face masks are recommended in places such as emergency rooms, are they truly necessary in day-to-day life? Infectious disease physician and hospital epidemiologist at Tufts Medical Center Dr. Shira Doron doesn’t believe so.

“Right now, your risk of acquiring the coronavirus in the United States is exceedingly low. There has been no person-to-person transmission within the United States,” Doron said. “Your average American does not need to be taking any special precautions in public right now.”

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has not advised that Americans wear face masks in public. They do, however, recommend typical health precautions such as hand washing, staying home when you’re sick, and covering your mouth when you cough and sneeze.

While five cases of coronavirus have been spotted in America, in Illinois, Arizona, Washington state, and California, experts believe it has not yet spread to Massachusetts.

“You wouldn’t acquire the coronavirus walking down the streets of Boston,” Doron said.

She said most viruses do not spread through the air and that to catch a virus, you must be in extremely close proximity to a symptomatic person. Face masks do not protect against airborne viruses because they do not filter small air particles or seal the face. Face masks can be effective against close droplet transmission, which is when viruses are spread through actions like sneezing and coughing, Doron said.

“There are no studies to confirm that a face mask in a public place is effective at preventing infection,” Doron said. Face masks are useful in hospitals, where many viruses are circulating in close proximity.

Doron said the bigger issue at this time is that an increase in face mask popularity could lead to a shortage for hospitals. Massachusetts pharmacies are already running low due to concerned citizens buying and hoarding them.

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“I don’t suggest wearing a face mask at all. I don’t have one myself. We are not in a massive public health situation,” Doron said.