During the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization made it clear that, unless you’re sick or are a medical professional, you do not need to wear a face mask.
On February 29th, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
Adams’ message comes with good intentions. With COVID-19 cases soaring, doctors, nurses and other frontline health-care workers confront a severe shortage of masks — and cautioning people against buying them can help offset the problem.
Last week, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, told ScienceMag.com that the “big mistake in the U.S.” is that people aren’t wearing masks. “This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role,” he said. You’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth.”
Gao has done significant research on viruses that have fragile lipid membranes called envelopes — a group that includes SARS-CoV-2 (the virus that causes COVID-19) — and how they enter cells and move between species.
“Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections,” he continued. “If they’re wearing face masks, it can [help] prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
‘People should be contemplating wearing masks’
In recent days, it appears that U.S. authorities are realizing they should have encouraged mask-wearing during the early stages of the outbreak.
Scott Gottlieb, former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner, said on Sunday in an interview with CBS News’ “Face the Nation” that “people should be contemplating wearing masks. We should be putting out guidelines from the CDC on how you can develop a [cotton] mask on your own.”
And on Wednesday, Adams told NBC’s “TODAY” show that he has asked the CDC to investigate whether his earlier recommendation should change. (Current CDC guidance is that healthy people don’t need masks or face coverings.)
While homemade masks aren’t as effective as medical-grade masks (like N95 respirators, which filter out at least 95% of airborne particles), researchers studying respiratory illnesses — including SARS, which is another form of coronavirus — have found that a simple mask can help lower the risk of infection.
It’s important to note that wearing a homemade mask alone will not guarantee protection against COVID-19. But its effectiveness is better when combined with basic safety precautions, such as regular hand-washing and social distancing.
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