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Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam issued new guidance on the wearing of masks in public during a news conference in Ottawa, Monday April 6, 2020.Adrian Wyld/The Canadian Press

When Gurjeet Singh’s family announced in mid-March that they would temporarily close their Abbotsford, B.C., fabric store because of the COVID-19 pandemic, they were met by a crush of customers who wondered where they would get materials to make face masks and other personal protective equipment.

Mr. Singh, general manager of the small family business, said there were plans to launch an online store, but not until the summer.

“My developer and I sat down and discussed it, and said we need to prioritize what we’re doing,” he said. “Obviously, the demand isn’t going to be for silk and chiffon, it’s going to be for cotton and elastic. So we quickly pivoted.”

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The team worked around the clock, launching the Overseas Fabrics online store by the end of March. In the week since, Mr. Singh estimates that “97 per cent” of sales have been for the creation of protective or medical items: face masks, surgical caps, scrubs and gowns. Braided elastics, used to make ear loops for face masks, are the site’s bestsellers.

“Some [customers] are making them for their small businesses to sell,” Mr. Singh said. “The majority are making them either for themselves or family. The remainder are making them to donate to nurses, hospices, health-care workers. Some are giving them to retail staff and truckers. We had one customer who was making masks for the Downtown Eastside.”

The Fraser Valley business can expect to see such sales continue after Canada’s Chief Public Health Officer Theresa Tam on Monday issued new guidance on the wearing of masks in public. Citing new evidence on presymptomatic and asymptomatic transmission of the new coronavirus, Dr. Tam said it is “reasonable” to wear a non-medical mask in public settings when physical distancing can be hard to maintain.

Canadians choosing to wear masks are reminded of several important caveats. Health officials note there is no evidence that a non-medical face covering such as a homemade mask, bandana or scarf can protect the person wearing it, and should instead be considered an additional measure to reduce the likelihood of spreading one’s own droplets to others.

Joseph Blondeau, head of clinical microbiology at Royal University Hospital and the provincial lead for clinical microbiology with the Saskatchewan Health Authority, described a non-medical mask as anything used to cover one’s nose and mouth “but has not stood to the rigours of testing, by any standards that we have, in order to determine its capability of preventing either acquisition or transmission of a virus.”

He said such a mask is a tool that can complement – not replace – the other measures that have proven to be effective in mitigating the spread of COVID-19.

“That includes really strong hand hygiene, social or physical distancing, sneezing and coughing etiquette,” Dr. Blondeau said. Wearers should also wash their hands well before putting a mask on and after taking it off, and wash the mask after each use.

“If you’re going to be wearing a mask, a tighter fitting mask is slightly better, as opposed to a loose, gaping one which still allows particles to get in or out," Dr. Blondeau said.

Medical masks such as N95 respirators are in short supply and need to be reserved for health-care settings.

B.C. Provincial Health Officer Bonnie Henry, who is part of the special advisory committee that issued the new guidance, likened the wearing of a cloth face covering to coughing in one’s sleeve, or into a tissue.

“It may keep your droplets in so they are not in the air or on surfaces around you,” Dr. Henry said Monday. “It’s not an alternative to the things that we know work. But in those places where you might not be able to maintain the physical distance for the whole time, like transportation, for example, or if you have to go out to the grocery store, it is an option for people.”

She called the new messaging on face masks “permissive use,” and not a recommendation or requirement.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention last week recommended wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where physical distancing measures can be hard to maintain, such as in grocery stores.

The CDC recommendation came after new evidence that there is significant transmission by people not showing any symptoms of COVID-19 – as many as 25 per cent of those infected, CDC director Robert Redfield told Atlanta’s WABE 90.1 FM radio station in an interview last week. As well, he said those who do become symptomatic appear to shed the virus “probably up to 48 hours” before showing symptoms.

“This helps explain how rapidly this virus continues to spread across the country, because we have asymptomatic transmitters and we have individuals who are transmitting 48 hours before they become symptomatic,” Dr. Redfield said.

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