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Face masks and COVID-19

Coronavirus (COVID-19)

COVID-19 spreads from person to person through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs, sneezes or talks. Infection can also spread by touching a surface contaminated with infectious respiratory droplets and then touching your eyes, nose or mouth.

Recommendations for wearing face masks for COVID-19 may vary depending on the nature of the work and whether COVID-19 is circulating in the community. The evidence for the use of face masks is continually being reviewed by health authorities and is subject to change.

Low community transmission

In regions where community transmission of COVID-19 is low, health authorities do not recommend the routine use of face masks by people who are otherwise well, including at workplaces.

However, you should wear a face mask if you:

  • have symptoms and are seeking medical advice or testing for COVID-19, or
  • are in isolation for COVID-19 and are in the same room as another person, or
  • are caring for someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19.

Workers who have close contact with people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 should wear personal protective equipment (PPE) that may include a face mask. For example, if a person with COVID-19 is in the same room while cleaning is being done, the cleaner should wear a surgical mask in addition to other PPE such as a disposable apron and gloves to help remind them not to touch their face.

Healthcare workers should follow Queensland Health guidance on PPE for the management of COVID-19.

Widespread community transmission

In regions where community transmission is widespread, health authorities may recommend that face masks are worn by the general community to provide extra protection where social distancing (also known as physical distancing) can’t be readily maintained. The main benefit of face masks in these situations is to prevent those who are unknowingly infected with COVID-19 from spreading infection to others, and it does this by containing the infected person’s respiratory droplets. Some people may also choose to wear a face mask if they are at increased risk of severe illness if infected because of their age or a chronic medical condition.

What type of face mask should I use?

If health authorities recommend the use of face masks for the general community due to increased community transmission, a single-use (disposable) surgical mask (also called a medical mask) should be worn. A surgical mask should also be worn by people with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of infection to others. A reusable cloth mask may be used if a surgical mask is not available.

A face shield is not a substitute for a face mask but may be worn in specific circumstances, for example if someone has limited ability to wear a face mask because of a medical condition or a face mask would create a risk to the person’s health and safety at work. If worn, make sure the face shield fully covers the sides of the face and below the chin. Wash reusable face shields after use using warm water and detergent (soapy water). Single-use face shields should only be worn once and then discarded.

There are other types of face coverings such as a single-use P2 or N95 respirator. These are used in specific healthcare settings where healthcare workers may be exposed to infectious small airborne particles (aerosols). Respirators require an effective face seal to ensure their proper fit (PDF, 0.86 MB) and use. This includes being clean-shaven or only having facial hair that doesn’t interfere with the fitting surfaces and the valve of the respirator. Respirators are not recommended for use by the general community to prevent the spread of COVID-19, and respirators with an exhalation valve should never be worn by someone with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 because the person’s respiratory droplets pass unfiltered through the valve when they breathe out.

How do I use a face mask?

If you are required to wear a face mask at work, you should be instructed in its proper use so that you and others are not at increased risk of infection. This includes the following measures:

  • check the mask before use for defects such as tears or broken loops or ties
  • wash your hands with soap and water or apply alcohol-based hand sanitiser before putting on the face mask
  • make sure the mask covers your nose and mouth and fits snugly under your chin, over the bridge of your nose and against the sides of your face while ensuring you can breathe easily:
    • if the mask has a metallic strip, mould this to the shape of your nose
    • if it has ear loops, hold the mask by both ear loops and place one loop over each ear
    • if it has ties, hold the mask by the upper strings. Tie the upper strings in a secure bow near the crown of your head and tie the bottom strings securely in a bow near the nape of your neck
  • do not touch the front of your mask while wearing it and don’t pull it down to talk or consume food and drink. If you touch the front of the mask accidentally, immediately wash or sanitise your hands
  • the face mask should be either on or off - do not wear the mask hanging around your neck, under your nose or on your forehead
  • replace the mask if it becomes damp, soiled or damaged or you have coughed or sneezed into it
  • carefully remove the mask by grasping the loops or untying the ties to avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth, and then wash or sanitise your hands straight away
  • if using a single-use mask, use it once only and do not reuse. Dispose of the mask immediately after use by putting it in a sealable plastic bag so that it won’t be touched by others. Discard the sealed bag in the bin and then wash or sanitise your hands
  • if using a reusable mask, wash it after each use and before you put it back on. Place the used mask in a sealable plastic bag until you can wash it, and wash or sanitise your hands after handling it. Wash the used mask in a washing machine using a warm cycle and laundry detergent or by hand using warm water and detergent and allow to dry. Washed masks should be stored in a clean dry place such as a Ziplock bag. It is a good idea to have at least two masks, so you always have a clean one available
  • if the face mask is causing your glasses to fog up, make sure that the mask fits snugly over your face and try washing your glasses with water and detergent or apply an anti-fog spray.

It is important to also maintain other recommended measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as a face mask alone will not protect you and others from infection. This includes staying at home if unwell, social distancing by keeping at least 1.5 metres from other people, hand hygiene, coughing or sneezing into your elbow or tissue, regular cleaning of frequently touched surfaces, and seeking medical advice and getting tested for COVID-19 if you develop symptoms.

For more information visit the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland or Queensland Health website.