The Singapore government is now reportedly reviewing its stance on masks.
Director of Medical Services at the Ministry of Health (MOH), Kenneth Mak, told reporters at a COVID-19 media conference on Tue (31 Mar) that his ministry is looking at medical evidence “very carefully” and is conducting a review of its stance on masks.
“As far as masks are concerned, we are in fact in the process of continuing to review the data that’s available, both in the literature as well as the international experience,” Prof Mak said.
He added that recommendations would be made after the review is completed.
Up to this point, the Singapore government has been clear on urging members of the public not to wear masks if they are well.
Ho Ching: “We don’t need a hospital-grade surgical mask”
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong’s wife, Ho Ching, made a Facebook post yesterday night (1 Apr), in which she shared a blog post on how to make a face mask at home using only a handkerchief and a hair tie. No sewing or cutting is required.
“Bravo to the creativity and the spunky efforts to do our bit for ourselves and our friends and family,” Mdm Ho wrote.
“Any masks will be better than no masks – however low the risk, a mask can help lower it further by a little bit.”
She explained that if two people meet and both wear a mask, it would reduce the risk of COVID-19 infections even further.
“We don’t need a hospital-grade surgical mask for general public use, as the chances of meeting a really sick patient are low,” she said. “We should save the surgical masks for our healthcare workers.”
She then went on to tell a story that in the early 1900s, a Penangite doctor in China was pushing hard on having the healthcare team wear masks. All they had was a surgical gauze, which is quite porous, folded over a piece of cotton cloth.
Likewise, she asked Singaporeans to “make do”.
“So, we too can make do, and be the 1st line of defence by washing hands, keeping a safe distance, or use a mask as an added safe distance, so as to save our healthcare workers and not overwhelm them with too many patients too suddenly,” said Mdm Ho.
She also advised returnees from abroad to keep a safe distance from others whether or not they have a home quarantine.
“So whether or not, we have a home quarantine, do keep a safe distance from others, including old folks at home, until you have been home for at least 14 days,” Mdm Ho advised, adding: “If you feel you want to put on a mask, go ahead.”
Her brother-in-law Lee Hsien Yang, the younger brother of PM Lee, on Thu (2 Apr) shared a photograph of an ornate fabric mask made by his wife Lee Suet Fern.
“My reusable mask, just made for me,” wrote Mr LHY.
Mrs Lee, a lawyer by profession, is also known for her extraordinary quilting skills, as seen in her win at the 2019 Yokohama Quilt Time Festival in Japan.
Castel del Monte is a protected World Heritage European castle in southern Italy with octagonal towers, from which Mrs Lee derived her inspiration for her award-winning quilt.
Also, four medical professionals have previously highlighted the significance of masks among the general public during the COVID-19 outbreak despite MOH’s advisory.
In a letter titled “Health advisory from senior medical practitioners to Singaporeans” dated 10 Feb, the practitioners highlighted how “things are not so straightforward” with the COVID-19 outbreak as it was with the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) coronavirus in 2003.
“We are advising everyone to wear a mask always when leaving home. If one faces a person and both parties are masked, it is considerably safer, constituting a 2-barrier protection,” the letter read.
The practitioners acknowledged that while it “may not possible for everyone to get a new surgical mask everyday”, members of the public “need to find creative solutions”.
“Some people have purchased washable cloth masks, sewed them, constructed them with suitable paper, or tied a scarf to the face. These measures are better than no mask at all,” the practitioners noted.
More recently, authorities in the United States are considering calling on members of the public to wear face self-made coverings in the wake of the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the country.
A federal official who asked to remain anonymous told The Washington Post as reported on Tue (31 Mar) that officials at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are currently reviewing their advisory on masks.
While the official said that the CDC guidance will stress that the general public should not use medical masks — including surgical and N95 masks — to avoid further shortage of masks for frontline healthcare workers, another official said that the proposed revised recommendation may include utilising using do-it-yourself cloth coverings.
Such DIY masks may reduce the risk of transmission from the person wearing them to others around them if the person has been infected with the virus.
George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told Science Magazine in an interview that not wearing masks — a phenomenon currently widely seen in the United States and European countries — during the COVID-19 pandemic is a “big mistake”.
“This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth.
“Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others,” he said.
Kim Woo-joo, a professor of infectious diseases at the Korea University Guro Hospital and South Korea’s most prominent coronavirus expert, similarly told Asian Boss in an interview on 24 Mar that wearing masks to prevent infection of COVID-19 is “definitely effective”.
“Why else would doctors wear masks in hospitals? They wear them because they prevent infection,” he added, referencing the effectiveness of masks during the SARS and MERS outbreaks.
Professor Kim, who has around 30 years of experience in the area of infectious diseases, said he finds it quite “odd” that not many people wear masks in the West.
“The US Surgeon-General said people didn’t need to wear masks, and WHO recommended people not to wear masks, but I’d have to disagree.
“I did read his tweet … You have to understand the context. I think the point was to prevent the public from hoarding masks, because medical professionals need them more,” said Professor Kim, particularly due to the shortage of masks in the US.
Professor Kim also criticised the WHO’s statement on how people are only encouraged to wear masks in Asian countries due to purported cultural differences, stating that such a view is “problematic” as masks have been “proven” to prevent infection.
“Just look at China, Hong Kong, Japan and Korea … In the meantime, if you look at many European countries and the US, the virus is spreading rapidly. One of the reasons Korea has a relatively low rate of infection is because everyone is wearing a mask and washing their hands regularly,” he said.
WHO’s recommendation on wearing masks only when unwell appears to have been adopted by authorities and certain medical experts in multiple countries, including in Singapore and Malaysia.
The two countries — as well as an increasing number of countries around the world — however, have amped up social distancing measures and border controls to prevent or curb the spread of COVID-19.