Are cloth masks effective as protection from the novel coronavirus?

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Cloth masks have emerged as the alternative, but is it enough protection?

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines, January 31) — Face masks are back in demand just weeks after Taal volcano's ashfall — this time as protection against the novel coronavirus.

The Department of Health on Thursday confirmed the first case of the deadly disease in the Philippines: a 38-year-old Chinese woman who flew to Cebu, Dumaguete, and Manila last week.

Authorities said all measures are being taken to contain the spread of the virus, and urged the public to stay calm but vigilant in protecting themselves from the disease.

Demand for N95 as well as surgical masks have spiked following the news, with most supply stores declaring that the protective gear are all sold.

Former Health Secretary Esperanza Cabral said reusable cloth masks may be used as the alternative to the masks used in hospitals, but it would have to be washed in soap and water everyday.

"You can use cloth masks but they are not as effective as the surgical masks — in the same way that surgical masks are not as effective as the N95 (mask) — but better than nothing, I would say," Cabral told CNN Philippines.

In general, face masks need daily washing while the disposable surgical masks must be changed every four hours.

"You need to wash it frequently, because the virus — if there’s any — that you catch in the mask will stay in the mask," Cabral added.

Wearing the mask

Wearing masks must be accompanied by proper hygiene, especially the practice of frequent and thorough handwashing. Cabral said people must wash their hands with soap, as putting these under running water would not be enough to flush bacteria out.

At the minimum, hands must be washed before meals and after going to the toilet.

Cabral reminded that surgical masks should be worn as close to the face as possible, covering the nose and mouth with the lower end stretched to the chin. A thin metal in the lining of surgical masks should be pinched to be molded to the nose.

The World Health Organization and the Philippine Red Cross said the colored side of the surgical masks should be facing out. However, Cabral said there's not much difference.

"It is not 100 percent perfect kasi makikita mo na may mga butas naman siya na pwedeng pumasok ang hangin, but it is better than hindi [It is not 100 percent effective because there are still gaps where air can flow through, but it's better than not wearing any]," Cabral added, saying it's about 90 percent effective.

Meanwhile, she said the more secure N95 masks should be used in the hospital when a person is going to be exposed directly to an infected patient.

Cabral said the 2019-nCoV can be transmitted when an infected patient coughs or sneezes. The virus is released to the air and can land on one's face or on accessible surfaces, which one could end up touching. She clarified that it may be safe not to wear face masks in areas where one is sure that no person with coronavirus has entered.

"Kung ikaw ay nasa mall, hindi mo alam kung sino ang taong nandoon, kung nanggaling ba sila ng China at merong coronavirus [Translation: If you are at the mall, you don't know who else are there if they came from China and has the coronavirus]," she added.

Cabral also debunked claims that gargling water with salt would help get rid of the virus: "I don’t know whether that is true or not because there is no study on that... pero the virus, if you already have it, it will take its course. Kung magkakasakit ka sa virus na 'yan, magkakasakit ka [If you will get sick, you will get sick]."

CNN International reported that there are over 9,700 cases worldwide, with 213 people dead in mainland China as of early Friday. The 2019-nCoV has spread to 23 countries.

Cabral said more 2019-nCoV cases are expected to be confirmed as the virus spreads fast compared to previous viral diseases reported globally.

READ: China marks deadliest day as WHO declares global health emergency in fight against novel coronavirus

Former Presidential aide now Senator Bong Go said President Rodrigo Duterte has set a meeting with medical experts next week to discuss measures to halt the spread of the novel coronavirus. In a statement, Presidential Communications Secretary Martin Andanar advised the public to "avoid crowded places," use mask and gloves, and observe proper hygiene to prevent the transmission of the virus.