Healthy people don't need to wear surgical masks: Experts

People queueing outside a pharmacy yesterday.
PHOTO: AFP

To wear or not to wear? That is the question as people all over are gripped by fear of the Wuhan virus, which has claimed at least 130 lives so far in China.

In Singapore, the answer is clear from the long queues outside stores selling face masks, which have been flying off the shelves.

At Resorts World Singapore (RWS), some front-line staff were upset after they were apparently told not to wear face masks at work in case they alarm the guests.

In text messages seen by The New Paper, several guest services staff at Universal Studios Singapore in RWS discussed their concern about having to interact with tourists, including those from China.

Yesterday, the Ministry of Health (MOH) confirmed three new cases of infection, bringing the total to 10.

As in the previous seven cases, all three new patients are from Wuhan in China's Hubei province.

A member of the RWS message group confirmed the message exchange as authentic but declined to comment further.

One message said: "I don't feel comfortable coming to work knowing that there is no precaution for us other than sanitisers."

One of the replies, possibly from a supervisor, said: "Please do note, all guests before entering any of our attractions, will be scanned to see if they have a fever.

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"Please bear with us and I'm sure you'll see things are being done to ensure your safety at work."

TNP understands the exchange took place last week, when the workers' requests to be allowed to wear masks at work were turned down.

When contacted yesterday, an RWS spokesman said the claims were untrue.

"Since the masks were made available on Jan 24, all team members who feel the need to wear masks can wear masks," he said.

The spokesman would not confirm whether the staff were allowed to wear their own masks at work before last Friday, but added: "RWS stands guided by the Ministry of Health's advisory even before Jan 24."

Healthy people wearing face masks, mainly surgical masks, as a precaution are now a common sight in Singapore, but MOH's advisory notes that this is not necessary.

However, those who are sick with symptoms such as fever, cough or runny nose should wear surgical masks so as not to spread their illnesses to others.

Dr Chia Shi-Lu, chairman of the Government Parliamentary Committee for Health, told TNP yesterday that employers have no legal right to stop their workers from wearing a mask.

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But he also stressed it is a misconception that wearing a mask will provide adequate protection against the coronavirus.

Experts have pointed out that good personal hygiene such as washing hands or using sanitisers is more effective than wearing a mask.

Professor Leo Yee Sin, executive director of the National Centre for Infectious Diseases, said that while the N95 mask gives the best protection, it is not practical for the public as most people do not know how to wear it correctly.

She told The Straits Times: "If you find the N95 mask easy to breathe in and comfortable, you are wearing it wrong and it is no use. It is only when it is difficult to breathe in that you are wearing it correctly."

Dr Chia said the RWS incident highlighted how many Singaporeans might still not understand when to use a mask or what its purpose is for.

He said: "It is the same as during normal times - wear a mask only if you are unwell and going out so as not to pass your germs to other people."

Some hotels such as the Royal Plaza on Scotts are providing their staff with masks and hand sanitisers.

The hotel's general manager, Mr Patrick Fiat, said it is also conducting temperature screenings of guests at the hotel entrance.

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The temperature of employees is also monitored twice a day.

"The front-line employees are at higher risk as they have close exposure or direct contact with travellers," Mr Fiat added.

Food delivery companies Deliveroo, Foodpanda and Grab, which also has a ride-hailing service, have taken precautions for its partners.

A Deliveroo spokesman said yesterday: "We have prepared masks for riders starting from (today) to protect their health."

A Grab spokesman told TNP: "Grab is concurrently working on stockpiling masks and disinfectants for deployment should the need arise.

"We are also in touch with the local authorities and ready to provide support to help reduce the transmission of the virus."

Singapore Airlines is also providing surgical masks to crew members on flights to places affected by the Wuhan virus.

For the latest updates on the Wuhan virus, visit here.

This article was first published in The New Paper. Permission required for reproduction.