Should Healthcare Workers Wear Masks at Home?

Jake Remaly

June 04, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

Wearing a mask at home, even when everyone is feeling fine, might reduce the risk of frontline healthcare workers transmitting SARS-CoV-2 infection to their families, a recent study from China suggests. But the benefits might not outweigh the costs, according to several physicians interviewed.

"My gut reaction is that home mask use for healthcare workers would place an inordinately high burden on those healthcare workers and their families," said Jeanne Noble, MD, an emergency care physician at the University of California, San Francisco. "Wearing a mask for a 10-hour shift already represents significant physical discomfort, causing sores across the nose and behind the ears. The emotional toll of the physical distance that comes with mask use, with limited facial expression, is also quite real."

The suggested benefit of home mask use comes from research published online May 28 in BMJ Global Health. To assess predictors of household transmission of SARS-CoV-2 infection, Yu Wang, MD, of the Beijing Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and colleagues conducted a retrospective study of 124 families in Beijing in which there was a confirmed case of COVID-19 as of February 21. The researchers surveyed family members by telephone about household hygiene and behaviors during the pandemic to examine risk factors for transmission.

During the 2 weeks following onset of the primary case, secondary transmission occurred in 41 families. Overall, 77 of 335 family members developed COVID-19.

A multivariable logistic regression analysis found that in households in which family members wore masks at home before the first person became ill, there was less likelihood of transmission of disease to a family member, compared with families in which no one wore a mask prior to illness onset.

"Facemasks were 79% effective and disinfection was 77% effective in preventing transmission," the researchers report, "whilst close frequent contact in the household increased the risk of transmission 18 times, and diarrhea in the index patient increased the risk by four times."

However, wearing masks after symptom onset was not protective, according to the analysis. The findings support "universal face mask use, and also provides guidance on risk reduction for families living with someone in quarantine or isolation, and families of health workers, who may face ongoing risk," the authors write.

Still, other precautions may be more important, experts say.

"I think by far the best way for healthcare professionals to protect their families is to carefully employ appropriate infection prevention measures at work," said Mark E. Rupp, MD, chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at the University of Nebraska in Omaha. "The combination of administrative interventions, engineering improvements, and personal protective equipment is very effective in preventing SARS-CoV-2 acquisition in the workplace."

Many physicians already wear masks at home, and this study "only reemphasized the importance of doing so," said Raghavendra Tirupathi, MD, medical director of Keystone Infectious Diseases in Chambersburg, Pennsylvania, who recently reviewed studies about masks and COVID-19.

Home mask use provides "one more layer of protection that might help mitigate the risk of transmission to family members," Tirupathi said. But it does not obviate the need to follow other preventive measures, such as social distancing and proper hygiene.

But Rupp, whose advice on how healthcare workers can protect their families was recently highlighted by the American Medical Association, isn't convinced. He said he won't be adding home mask use to his list of recommendations. "It would be intrusive, cumbersome, and impractical to wear a mask in the home setting," Rupp said in an interview.

However, when out in the community, all family members must protect one another by practicing social distancing, wearing masks, and practicing proper hand hygiene. "I also think that it is a good idea to have some masks on hand in case anyone does develop symptoms in the household and to wear them if a family member falls ill ― at least until testing can confirm COVID-19," Rupp said. "If a family member does fall ill, masks for the ill person as well as the well persons would be indicated along with other home quarantine measures."

For her part, Noble, who has provided guidance about proper mask use, said that targeted use of masks at home, such as around older visiting relatives or other more vulnerable family members, may be more realistic than continuous in-home use.

When a household member becomes ill, recommendations for preventing disease spread include having a sick family member sleep in a separate bedroom, using a separate bathroom, and wearing a mask when within 6 feet of other household members. They also should avoid sharing meals. "For a household member who is a medical provider, to follow these self-isolation precautions while at home for months on end would have a significant emotional toll," Noble said in an email. "With no end in sight for the pandemic, perpetual mask use in both the private and public sphere strikes me as overwhelming ― I write this near the end of my 10-hour shift wearing both an N95 and surgical mask and counting the minutes before I can take them off!"

A limitation of the study was its reliance on telephone interviews, which are subject to recall bias, the authors note.

The study was funded by the Beijing Science and Technology Planning Project. The researchers have disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

BMJ Glob Health. Published online May 28, 2020. Abstract

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