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Will A Face Mask Prevent You From Getting Coronavirus?

As the spread of the coronavirus continues to grow, many have flocked to chemists and other suppliers to purchase face masks in the hope it will prevent the spread of the deadly disease.

A number of stores and chemists across Australia have already sold out of face masks both in-store and online, as health authorities confirmed six people have been infected with the virus in the country.

Four of those people are in NSW, while two others have also been infected in Victoria, with dozens more across the country still being tested.

But while the number of people in public and on transport wearing masks has increased in some areas, authorities and experts have been cautious about recommending the use of the masks to everyone.

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With regular testing and the isolation of all currently confirmed patients, health authorities have repeatedly tried to quell growing panic about the threat of the disease in Australia.

Authorities said the main concern is for people who have recently come back from China, particularly from Wuhan and the Hubei region who may have developed flu-like symptoms to get tested and seek treatment immediately.

But on Tuesday, the nation's chief medical officer Brendan Murphy also urged health practitioners, including doctors and other medical staff who were treating or consulting patients with suspected coronavirus, to wear masks.

"We do want GPs who see someone with the relevant travel history who is unwell to put a mask on the patient and put a mask on the doctor and staff when they are assessing the patient," Murphy said.

"We are investigating the supply situation for general practitioners and if it really is difficult and impossible for some of them to get then we will make sure they can get masks."

A passenger wearing a protective mask on arrival at Sydney International Airport in Sydney. Image: AAP.

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Scott Morrison said one million masks would be released from the national medical stockpile via public health networks to both general practices and pharmacists.

Federal Health Minister Greg Hunt said there was a national stockpile of 21.5 million masks, including 12 million P2 masks and nine million surgical masks, which he said were "appropriate masks for this particular type of action."

The Royal Australian College of General Practitioners said GPs are on the frontline of healthcare when the country faces a "potential pandemic, such as coronavirus."

"They must be supported so they can continue to provide quality patient care," RACGP President Dr. Harry Nespolon told 10 daily.

"The government has a responsibility to give GPs any necessary equipment – we are pleased that the government has indicated that it will dip into the national stockpile for facemasks if required."

But health authorities have repeatedly stressed that masks are not necessary for the Australian general public.

"The only people who should wear masks in relation to this virus are those who are unwell and have had a relevant travel history," Murphy said on Tuesday.

Chief Medical Officer Professor Brendan Murphy. Image: AAP

In Victoria, where two patient have so far been isolated with the virus, state health authorities said while respiratory masks may make some difference they will not provide "perfect protection".

"We know that people touch their faces 20 times an hour. So one thing it does do is stop you doing the hand-to-mouth or hand-to-nose gestures where you might pick up something if you are infected," the state's chief health officer Brett Sutton said on Tuesday.

"It is very good if someone has coronavirus to wear one," he added.

"For those of us who are trying to protect ourselves from anyone who might be out there -- there are only five confirmed and they are all isolated in Australia -- it’s not a perfect solution but it does provide some protection from those droplets spreading to you."

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Respiratory health experts have also stressed the situation is much different from that in China, where tens of millions of people have had to be isolated.

"Isolating people who have coronavirus is quite straight forward for us (in Australia) and we've got procedures in place where we know all of the close contacts and we can follow them up individually and check in on them on a daily basis," Sutton said.

"That's entirely different to the situation in China where there will literally be thousands of contacts who the Chinese government is not aware of and who may be transmitting to others."

Image: AAP.

Professor Raina MacIntyre, head of the Biosecurity Program at the Kirby Institue UNSW, agreed and said face masks were of "limited value" in Australia because the nation has only had five confirmed cases.

"If you're in the city of Wuhan, there would be some benefit to it," MacIntyre told 10 daily.

She urged the general public in Australia that there was no need to "panic-buy masks".

"I think the people who do need masks are the health care workers, but for the general community it is not necessary for this stage," she said.

"It would also lead to shortages of masks so that if the situation changes no one would be able to get a mask," she added.

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Senior Lecturer in molecular and biomedical science at Adelaide University, Dr. Mohammed Alsharifi, said while face masks could generally be effective to limit the spread of particles from coughing and sneezing stemming from viruses, using masks in relation to the coronavirus was a bit more complex.

"The question is how we use it and when we use it," Alsharifi said.

"It's very difficult to ask the entire population to use a face mask, but the most effective way would be if you know you had been exposed or been in close contact with someone who had the virus," he said.

"But if you touch any contaminated materials with your hands you could basically transfer the virus from the hands to the face or the mouth," he added.

Alsharifi said standard surgical masks used in hospitals and emergency rooms may provide enough effective protection because surgeons will generally use them to stop the transmission of microbes.

There are currently five confirmed cases of the infection in Australia. Image: Getty

MacIntyre, however, said there may not be much protection from standard surgical masks, with a major study showing respirators provide the most protection for practitioners.

"So if you are working in a high-risk situation, a respirator would provide much better control."

MacIntyre said these respirators are generally available in hospitals but some doctors surgeries may also stock them.

Alsharifi said for Australia the most important step is to "interfere with the transmission cycle" by stopping close contact of patients with those who aren't infected.

"That's our only hope."

There have been more than 4,500 confirmed cases in China, with the death toll spiking overnight to at least 106, with scores more in critical condition.