Wearing face masks may reduce infections, but doesn't replace social distancing, CA health director says

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Amid the novel coronavirus outbreak, many people want to know about masks - should you wear one and can it help protect from the virus?

On Wednesday, Sonia Angell, California's director of public health, addressed the concern.

"So there is some evidence that coverings may reduce asymptomatic infections, " she said. "And also it might signal to others that you need to keep a little bit of distance. It does also work through decreasing the amount of infectious particles that go into the air when we cough or we sneeze or we talk, particularly when we speak closely to other people. But again it doesn't replace the need for physical distancing."

While the U.S. Centers for Disease Control considers shifting official guidelines on wearing masks, ordinary citizens are already taking matters into their own hands by making their own face coverings.

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With N95 and surgical masks sold out and back-ordered until at least May, social media feeds are becoming virtual sewing circles. The homemade masks are now making their way to the front line fight against coronavirus.

"We are making a first distribution to Highland Hospital this week, they requested 600 masks from us," said Minh Ngo, executive director of My New Red Shoes, a non-profit based in Redwood City. "We're also partnering with Kaiser systems throughout the Bay Area."

Normally they distribute shoes to homeless and low income children. But in the midst of a pandemic, their volunteers are now sewing thousands of masks, based on a Kaiser approved template. "Within a couple days of when we launched our effort, we had hundreds of volunteers signed up across the Bay Area and actually across the country to make these masks for our health care workers."

"Unfortunately, San Francisco as with the rest of the region, as with the rest of the country, has a severe, severe shortage of masks," said Dr. Grant Colfax, the director of San Francisco Department of Public Health.

His department issued recommendations for all health department employees and first responders to wear masks.

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Beginning Sunday, UCSF instituted a universal surgical mask policy.

All staff, faculty, trainees and visitors must complete a screening and then obtain a surgical mask.

"We are asking everyone to keep mask that you receive as long as possible, until it becomes soiled. We need these masks for public health and first responder purposes," Dr. Colfax said.

As for the general public, local and state officials are still waiting on face covering recommendations from the CDC.

"Expect in the next 24 hours, that the state of California will put out more prescriptive guidelines in that space," said Gov. Gavin Newsom during a Wednesday briefing.

For people who want to cover their faces, but don't have any proper masks or ability to sew, there are instructions online for sew-less DIY masks.

Just make sure whatever protection you wear, you still maintain your 6-feet of social distance.
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