According to the Los Angeles Times today, both face masks and frequent hand washing provide equal levels of protection:
[N]o single action . . . will provide complete protection in areas with confirmed swine flu cases, health officials said. It isn’t practical to wear a mask all the time, even a quality mask, and the devices aren’t foolproof.
“Once they get moist, they are no longer useful,” Mascola said. “Your saliva is going to be pooling in that mask. That will make is not useful because germs will be able to permeate.”
Taking a mask on and off contaminates it and makes it less useful, as well. It is effective “only for a 20-minute to a half-hour period,” she said. “Even in those places during the SARS epidemic, they found hand-washing as effective as wearing masks.”
So at least wash your hands frequently throughout the day.
And here’s something ironic. Mask wearers may be lulled into a deluded and Samson-like omnipotence (“So long as my mask is on, I can go where I want and do anything”):
Masks may give people a false sense of security, said Dr. Laurene Mascola, director of acute communicable disease control for the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health.
“You would have to wear it 100% of the time that you are outside,” she said of masks and respirators.
Further, face masks and respirators shouldn’t replace other precautions.
“Somewhat lost in all the excitement is that we continue to need to take standard control measures,” said Dr. Paul Holtom, associate professor of medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine and a hospital epidemiologist at Los Angeles County-USC Medical Center and the USC University Hospital.
To avoid infecting others, ill people should stay home, avoid crowds, cover their mouth when they cough or sneeze, and wash their hands before touching eyes, nose or mucus membranes.
Sometimes the simplest remedies are, in fact, the best.