Google searches for ‘face mask’ hit all-time high due to coronavirus

The images streaming out of China as the country struggles to contain the coronavirus outbreak depict  masses donning protective medical face masks. As Wired has pointed out, these masks have become a symbol of the pandemic. And Americans are taking notice.

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As the disease spreads around the world and experts warn that the virus, known as Covid-19, will likely come to U.S. shores soon, Americans have apparently been wondering how to protect themselves — and whether they should take a cue from Chinese citizens’ facial attire.

That worry is reflected in our Google searches. According to Google Trends, searches for “face mask” reached an all-time high in February.

The coronavirus has so far infected over 80,000 people around the world, resulting in over 2,600 deaths, according to the World Health Organization’s (WHO) latest situation report.

We can’t know for sure if the search and disease phenomena are connected, and whether worry about the disease is specifically causing people to search for face masks more. However, the timing of the search spikes points to a correlation.

Searches for face masks have been climbing over time, but have remained fairly steady with slight spikes and dips over the last five years. In late January 2020 — the moment in which news and conspiracy theories about the coronavirus began to go mainstream — there was an unprecedented jump in that specific search.

While the week of Jan. 26 – Feb. 1 saw the search reach an all-time high, searches for the term also currently appear to be climbing. Reports that the disease had spread to the Middle East and Europe broke over the past week and the CDC announced Tuesday that the U.S. should prepare itself for an outbreak.

Sales of face masks have also increased. Wired reports that Amazon is attempting to stop vendors from engaging in price gouging as demand hits new heights. Hospitals have also seen shortages of medical face masks, which some are attributing to purchases made by private citizens.

While face masks are popular in China and are certainly a vivid representation of the disease’s impact, they might not have as big of an impact as wearers hope. Experts say that the most effective way to prevent against the coronavirus is to wash your hands frequently. Masks could prevent infected droplets from entering your nose and mouth. However, your eyes are still vulnerable and people are likely to still touch their mouths and nose under their masks, which undoes any protection it would provide otherwise.

That’s not the first thing a concerned person will find out when they search for face masks, though. Information about the masks’ efficacy doesn’t even surface up top in a Google search. You can find that below the shopping carousel, as the fifth result.

An incognito mode search for “face mask” delivers mostly shopping results.

Knowledge is power, but face masks are no guarantee for health.

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