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Wear face masks in public, CDC says

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people wear cloth face masks when they are out in public, such as going to grocery stores. Photo: Courtesy City of Sacramento
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people wear cloth face masks when they are out in public, such as going to grocery stores. Photo: Courtesy City of Sacramento  

The general public should routinely wear cloth face masks to reduce transmission of the new coronavirus that causes COVID-19, according to new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The updated guidelines were announced during the daily White House coronavirus briefing on Friday, April 3. President Donald Trump stressed that the new mask recommendation is voluntary, promptly adding that he is choosing not to wear one.

The CDC's new guidance is a departure from previous recommendations stating that people should not routinely wear masks unless they have symptoms or are caring for someone who is ill. Now, the CDC advises that people wear cloth face coverings when shopping for groceries, going to work, or wherever else they might come into contact with people outside of their household.

However, health officials stress that wearing face masks is not a substitute for social distancing efforts, including staying at home as much as possible, hand washing, and keeping a six foot distance from other people.

"It is critical to emphasize that maintaining six-feet social distancing remains important to slowing the spread of the virus," the CDC's updated website reads. "CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure."

The earlier recommendation was based on the fact that face masks do not offer complete protection, especially if they are not worn correctly. What's more, N95 respirators and surgical masks are in short supply and should be reserved for health care workers.

Cloth masks do not filter out tiny particles such as viruses, like N95 respirator masks do. But they do block respiratory droplets that carry the coronavirus. These droplets are expelled when people cough or sneeze, and the virus is released into the air even when people sing, talk, or breathe.

Wearing a cloth mask is not so much intended to protect the wearer from contracting the virus, but rather to reduce transmission to others. Studies have found that surgical masks significantly reduce the release of respiratory viruses by the wearer. But even the more modest protection offered by homemade cloth masks could add up to substantial risk reduction at the population level.

In addition to blocking the spread of the coronavirus through the air, wearing a mask can remind people not to touch their face, which can transmit virus left on surfaces such as door handles.

Many homemade masks are similar in design to surgical masks. One recent comparison found that masks made from a double layer of heavy-duty cotton appear to work well. But even a bandana or cut-up T-shirt can lessen the spread of virus-containing droplets. Make sure the mask fits snugly and completely covers both the nose and mouth.

The change in the guidelines was motivated in part by a growing recognition that people can transmit the new coronavirus even when they have no symptoms. Some studies suggest that up to a quarter of people who contract the virus are asymptomatic. For this reason, it is not enough for people to wear a mask only when they are feeling ill or are in contact with someone who is ill.

What's more, widespread mask use reduces stigma that could arise if they are only worn by people who are ill.

"One advantage of universal use of face masks is that it prevents discrimination [against] individuals who wear masks when unwell because everybody is wearing a mask," Dr. Shuo Feng of the University of Oxford and colleagues wrote in a recent commentary in the Lancet.

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