Surgical Mask on Sick Coworker: Am I Safe?

Last week, I overheard a conversation of my coworker at the next desk. She casually mentioned that she was leaving early to get her blood drawn because she might have the flu.

I almost immediately grabbed my laptop, wished her better health and started working in a different part of the building (after stopping to wash my hands).

I poked my nose into the office on Monday. There she was at her desk wearing a surgical mask, still coughing etc. She mentioned that her test last week was positive and she had the flu. Needless to say, I didn’t stay.

Here’s the question: Is a surgical mask worn by a sick person in a work environment an effective barrier against spreading illnesses like the flu?

I’ve easily found studies of surgical mask protection for health care workers dealing with sick people. And also I’ve found studies of surgical mask benefits for the healthy general public during flu season. But nothing about whether a sick employee is sufficiently quarantined waring a mask at work.

Am I safe sitting 3 feet from my snorffling, surgical mask-wearing coworker?


Did you get a flu shot?

Yes, but my question is more about the effectiveness of surgical masks… Someone else in the office or building may not have gotten a flu shot.

Well, it is going to reduce droplets being spread about from not covering the mouth when coughing, but not eliminate them.

What type of mask was it? In theory, N95 types should be more effective in preventing transmission than simple surgical masks. In practice, not so much.

For respiratory viruses, N95 may not be more effective, but for tuberculosis, I’m sure it is.

Plus you have to consider whether she touches her face around the mask, picking up the flu virus on her fingers, then touches door knobs, etc. Flu virus can survive on and be transmitted via hard surfaces, after all.

Not to mention that people with the flu tend to be infectious for a day prior to actually showing symptoms…

How long can the virus live (and remain viable) outside a host?

I assume this person is the boss, or is the boss a complete moron? Not only exposing the workforce to a potentially fatal disease, but the organization to some hard-to-defend (my guess) litigation.
“You knew this person has tested positive for influenza, yet did nothing to mitigate the potential harm to persons required by your policies to expose themselves to her?” “Exactly what kind of moron are you??”

The pore size of the mask relative to a flu virus is probably similar to the hole in a hula hoop relative to a baseball - so although you’re probably much better off with the mask than without (the mask will block much of the much larger mucus droplets when she coughs), it’s far from foolproof.

But even if it was 100% effective at blocking the virus, you’re still at risk. She’s got to take the mask off to blow her nose, drink, eat etc, and she surely has plenty of flu viruses on her hands and face which can easily spread to others in the office via doorknobs, water cooler handles, the copier/printer, vending machine, etc. And eventually the mask itself will be saturated in virus-laden spittle, which could conceivably become airborne when she coughs or sneezes.

I’d definitely say something to management. The flu shot isn’t 100% effective, and I imagine other coworkers getting sick and staying home could negatively impact those of you that remain healthy. Sometimes people need a nudge from their boss or coworkers to take a sick day.

For a long time, influenza has been believed to be droplet borne, not airborne. That is, it would take a droplet of gunk to carry an infectious level of virus. This means you would be in danger from being sneezed on, but not from breathing the air after the sneeze.

A small study in 2011 began to cast doubt on this theory. These researchers found that some, but not all, people suffering from influenza were able to aerosolize the virus, expelling a fine enough mist of gunk that it would indeed remain airborne in an up to 6 foot radius around them. I do not know if this study has been repeated or debunked, but it did leave a lasting impression within the health care field.

The CDC still recommends “droplet precaution” for influenza, meaning gloves, eye protection and gowns when doing things involving bodily fluids, and masks when within 3 feet of the patient. They have not (yet?) upgraded influenza to airborne precautions, which would mean isolation rooms with special air treatment.

In an office setting, I’d be okay with my officemate wearing a mask, IF my desk was 6 feet or more away and we could realistically maintain that separation and ASSUMING I’d gotten my flu vaccination (which I have, of course.) Given those conditions, a mask is really an overabundance of caution, but one that would make me feel better, personally.

In my experience, anyone who is suffering from influenza will be home in bed wishing they were dead. You can make it to work, if you really must, with a heavy cold, but flue is completely debilitating.

Right, She has the flu, but is able to come to work? I’m impressed with her constitution, if not her judgement.

I have two questions:

  1. How common is a blood test for the flu, my understanding was most of it was swabs:

  1. How often does someone have to go in for a blood (or other test) to get diagnosed? I get the impression some of these tests are very quick and easy to do (and might not have been years ago), but I thought in general you got diagnosed by symptoms. Obviously some people get tested - cause we know the CDC reports on this stuff, but I’m curious if anyone knows what percentage of people that get diagnosed with influenza actually are tested in any way for the disease.

From what I’ve read the flu is usually contagious for up to a week after the person gets sick (with some exceptions for kids and stuff). If that is true - you didn’t mention when last week, but it seems likely you are probably in the clear now.

If she had the flu.

Is amazing what motivation the fear of losing your home for lack of rent or mortgage payment can be. It is the end of the month, after all, and a short one. If she’s living paycheck to paycheck, she may not feel she had a choice. And while influenza is often debilitating, it’s not always debilitating. A mild case along with a shit ton of stimulants and addictive nasal sprays can get you through the day so you can spread the ick to everybody. But yeah, she’s not doing herself or her body any favors.

Up to 8 hours on hard surfaces.


Charming, real charming - now, even the cleaning staff has a shot at it…

So much for office lunches, eh gang?