Wearing a surgical mask is unlikely to protect healthy people from the novel coronavirus that originated in China, and influenza likely poses a much greater threat to Americans, according to José Cordero, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics in the University of Georgia’s College of Public Health.
Below, Cordero shares some of his thoughts on the coronavirus outbreak and what people should do to protect themselves from 2019 nCoV and other respiratory diseases. He also shares his concern that the coronavirus could be particularly dangerous for vulnerable populations like pregnant women and people who are immunocompromised.
Does wearing a surgical mask keep you from catching the coronavirus?
It is important to wear a mask if you’re ill and if you have a cough and a fever or you think you may have flu or another respiratory infection. It’s very important because you don’t want to spread your condition, your infection to others. But if you’re healthy the fact is that using a mask is not going to necessarily protect you. So generally, the recommendation is if you’re sick, wear a mask, if you’re not, you don’t.
“Now there is one exception. And there’s those individuals that are immunocompromised or that, for example, are on cancer treatment. There you need to talk to your doctor and get more specifics on whether or not to wear a mask.”
Does all the focus on the coronavirus distract us from other infectious diseases that people are more likely to encounter?
“I think one positive part of the coronavirus is that it’s providing great publicity to the challenge of respiratory viruses, and which coronavirus is one. But it actually should remind us of what we can do today to protect ourselves against respiratory viruses, and we’re currently under the seasonal influenza virus that has caused over 8,200 deaths in the U.S.
“Getting vaccinated is one of the steps you can do to protect yourself from influenza. And you have a much, much higher risk of having influenza and having complications from influenza than you currently have from the coronavirus that actually has not dispersed in the U.S yet.”
How might the coronavirus impact more sensitive populations?
“If we look at the experience with other coronaviruses like SARS or MERS–and in doing a very quick review of what has been published–there seems to be an increased risk of mortality for pregnant women but also a higher rate adverse outcomes in babies or pregnancies.
“So, we don’t know for sure what will happen with this coronavirus, but it would be a likely consequence that there might be a higher risk. Now having said that, it is important to just also look at influenza, and in influenza it’s clear that pregnant women have a much higher risk of mortality from having the infection. For example, a woman that may be 21 years old and pregnant the risk of having very severe influenza or die from influenza is as high as that of if she were 65 years old.”