With the reported death toll in China from coronavirus now at 80, the deadly outbreak that originated in Wuhan, Hubei Province, China, is causing concern worldwide, as cases are steadily being reported in many countries.

The transmission and spread of the new virus, known as 2019-nCoV, which is linked to the deadly SARS and Middle East respiratory syndrome, is not yet fully understood. The latest figures reported on Jan. 27 also had the number of confirmed cases at 2,744, although some experts warn that number may be much lower than actual people infected.

China’s health minister said the country was entering a “crucial stage” as “it seems like the ability of the virus to spread is getting stronger.” The U.S. Consulate in Wuhan will evacuate its personnel and also some private citizens in a chartered flight.

Wuhan has been in lockdown for days, with all public transportation at a halt. More than a dozen cities across China have been locked down, affecting more than 50 million people, The Associated Press reported. Officials are suggesting the use of surgical masks when out in public to prevent the spread of the disease. Many retail outlets have run out as the demands for masks increases.

Do surgical masks really work to prevent you from catching the virus?

Face masks are designed to catch large contaminants and particles, including ones that might carry pathogens such as the coronavirus.

There are two common kinds: surgical masks and N95 respirators. “Surgical masks will not prevent your acquiring diseases,” said Dr. William Schaffner, a professor of preventive medicine and infectious diseases at Vanderbilt University, and the medical director of the National Foundation for Infectious Diseases, to Fox News.

Surgical masks, said Schaffner, are mostly used in surgery, where they protect patients from mouth-borne germs from staff in the theater. But “those masks don’t work to prevent inhaling diseases,” said Schaffner. “There’s little harm in it,”

Eric Toner, a scientist at Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said of donning a mask. “But it’s not likely to be very effective in preventing it.” Surgical masks may lower the chance of becoming infected from droplets from an infected person when they cough or sneeze, but are not fully protective. The virus is able to enter the body through the eyes as well.

The masks are usually made of thin material meant to cover the mouth and nose but don’t fit snugly to the face, with many gaps to allow air to pass in and out. “When coughing, you can feel the puffs of air coming out of the mask,” said Schaffner.

He recommends “abundant hand washing” as an aid to prevention. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the best precautions are the standard, everyday ways to avoid germs: wash your hands frequently, try not to touch your face, and avoid close contact with sick people.

It is important to avoid touching your face with your hands, as you may transmit the virus from your hands to the mucous membranes of the face, causing infection.

Patients who wear surgical masks are usually those suffering from some respiratory infection, and the mask prevents them from coughing or sneezing viral particles into the air surrounding them. Wearing a surgical mask will not offer much protection against coronavirus infection.

Wearing a surgical mask will not offer much protection against coronavirus infection. (photo ExamTalk,Flckr.com)

N95 respirators filter out most airborne particles from the surrounding air, preventing wearers from breathing in particles down to 0.3 microns in diameter. However, the coronavirus is 0.12 microns in diameter, meaning the virus may still pass through, making the N95 vulnerable to the virus. So the mask is not foolproof, although it may provide some protection.

If you are trying to protect yourself against viral infection such as coronavirus, you need to wear the N95, a full-face respirator with a silicon seal, making outside air go through the respiration filter cartridge. The company 3M produces such protective masks, but they are mostly sold out in the United States.

China is already buying  N95 masks in North America and air shipping them to the Chinese mainland. Their domestic factories can’t keep up with demand. Millions of these masks have already been sold in China, even though the Chinese government claims there so far less than 3,000 people infected with the virus.

Although the United Kingdom hasn’t recorded any cases of coronavirus yet, professor Neil Ferguson, a public health expert at Imperial College said, “My best guess now is perhaps 100,000 cases right now,” he said, although it could be between 30,000 and 200,000. “Almost certainly many tens of thousands of people are infected,” reports The Guardian.

“Sooner or later we will get a case,” he said. “There are very large numbers of Chinese tourists across Europe right now. Unless the Chinese manage to control this, and I’m skeptical about whether that is possible, we will get cases here.” The third U.S. case of the previously unknown coronavirus was confirmed in Orange County, on Sunday Jan.26.

The OC Health Care Agency (HCA) said in a statement, the patient was a “traveler from Wuhan, China, has been in contact with the HCA and was provided guidance in order to reduce exposure to the public while awaiting laboratory confirmation from the CDC. The individual has now been transported to a local hospital and is in isolation in good condition.”

There are now more than 60 patients under investigation for possible infection in over 20 US states, according to Dr. Nancy Messonnier of the CDC. Infectious-disease experts in the United States have not recommended people wear face masks so far, however, people in Wuhan and other provinces in China where the spread of coronavirus is occurring, are encouraged to wear one.

World Health Organization confirmed this week that the virus has been transmitted person-to-person, but it is not yet known how easy the virus is to catch from other individuals.

Here is a handy online tool to enable you to keep up the spread of coronavirus.