In this blog post, Gemma from the MS Trust's Information Team discusses the current advice on whether people with MS should wear face coverings in public places during the coronavirus outbreak.
Understanding how Covid-19 spreads
Covid-19 spreads through droplets that are expelled when an infected person coughs or sneezes. These droplets can be inhaled by other people or land on surfaces that other people may touch and then ingest by touching their eyes, nose or mouth.
The way COVID-19 spreads has led to strict rules on medical masks being worn in hospital and care environments to stop the virus spreading and being passed on to healthcare professionals.
However guidance on whether face coverings should be worn by the general population as well has been very mixed with guidance varying in different countries around the world.
What are face coverings?
A face covering is a piece of material that safely covers the nose and mouth. They can be made out of a variety of breathable fabrics, such as cotton.
Face coverings are not the same as medical or surgical masks that are used in hospital settings as personal protective equipment (PPE).
Who's being advised to wear face coverings?
In England and Scotland you are required by law to wear a face covering in enclosed public spaces where social distancing is more difficult. You must wear a mask specifically when travelling on public transport, using indoor transport hubs (eg, train stations and airports), when going to shops and supermarkets, and when visiting indoor shopping centres, banks, building societies and post offices.
From 8 August in England there will be more places where you must wear a face covering, including cinemas, theatres and museums (read the full list).
In Wales (from 27 July) and Northern Ireland you must wear a face covering when using public transport. You're also advised to wear one in places where it's difficult to keep two metres from others, such as supermarkets, but they're not compulsory at the moment.
What if I can't wear a face covering?
Most people with MS will be able to wear a face covering safely. If you're particularly worried about wearing one, you may want to try one out around the house first to get used to it and find one you're comfortable in. There are lots of different styles and materials available you could try.
If you feel that wearing a face covering would cause you harm or severe distress then you don't have to wear one.
You don't need to provide any written evidence that says you don't have to wear a face covering. However you might find it helpful to carry an exemption card or badge with you to help other people understand why you're not wearing one. You can download a card or badge from the government website. Alternatively you could make your own sign.
The benefits of face coverings
The evidence on the use of face coverings is limited, however they may be of some benefit when worn in enclosed public places where it's more difficult to follow social distancing rules.
The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) has said that the use of face coverings in public places may reduce the spread of infection in the community when worn by people who might not realise they’re infected. This is why some countries are encouraging people to wear them in public places.
So face coverings don't protect you; they protect others you may come into contact with, if you have the virus and don't realise it yet.
The risks of wearing face coverings
The use of face coverings by the general public more widely in the community may carry extra risks.
If everyone wears them there is concern it may create a false sense of security leading people to neglect other social distancing measures – like regular handwashing and keeping at least two meters away from others.
As well as this, face coverings need to be used safely in order to be effective. If used incorrectly there’s a risk of self-contamination. Anyone wearing a face covering should understand how to wear, remove and wash them in the correct way.
How can I make my own face covering?
You could use existing items of clothing like bandanas or scarves. Alternatively, some people are making their own using various textiles like cotton fabric.
If you are making your own face covering, consider the number of layers, the breathability of the material, its water repellence qualities, and the shape and fit of the mask.
Keep up with other social distancing measures
It’s important to remember that face coverings aren’t a replacement for other social distancing measures.
Preventative measures like physical distancing, hand hygiene and avoiding touch your face, nose, eyes and mouth should continue to be followed too. These are most effective at reducing the spread of COVID-19.
Finally, if you do experience symptoms of COVID-19 you must stay at home and follow the guidance on self-isolating. Wearing a face covering does not change this guidance.
Coronavirus and MS
Read our updated guidance on Covid-19, the vaccines, and staying safe with multiple sclerosis.
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