Will wearing a surgical mask protect me from an outbreak?
Dr. Osterholm says certain kinds of masks can clearly reduce your risk of contracting the bird flu. Normal, everyday surgical masks and pieces of cloth tied across your face will do little or nothing to stop the spread of the virus, he says.
Surgical masks prevent doctors from breathing directly on patients, but they have holes and vents on the sides to keep air flowing freely through the mask. Special types of masks (like the N95 Mask Dr. Osterholm is holding above) have sealed sides that can block out contaminated air.
But, even with this kind of mask on, you're still at risk, Dr. Osterholm cautions. The bird flu virus can live outside the mask for two to three days. After one wear, you have to properly dispose of the mask to avoid contact with harmful germs.
There is one more problem with the masks...there won't be enough to go around, Dr. Osterholm says. Pandemics can last for up to two years, and since many of our medical supplies are shipped from overseas sources, Dr. Osterholm predicts that America will run out of masks, prescription drugs and other necessities before the threat is over.
Even Dr. Osterholm won't be safe. "I have to be honest and say I don't have enough masks that would get me through [a pandemic]," he says. "So in a sense, it's as if I almost had a spare tire—but not quite."