With the coronavirus pandemic quickly spreading, U.S. health officials have changed their advice on face masks and now recommend people wear cloth masks in public areas where social distancing can be difficult, such as grocery stores.
But can these masks be effective?
President Donald Trump, in announcing the change in the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidance on April 3, stressed that the recommendation was voluntary and said he probably wouldn’t follow it. Governors and mayors, however, have started encouraging the precautions to reduce the spread of the virus by people who might not know they are infected.
Some cities have gone as far as setting fines for failing to wear a mask. In Laredo, Texas, anyone over the age of five who walks into a store or takes public transit without their mouth and nose covered by a mask or bandana could now be fined up to $1,000.
These new measures are designed to “flatten the curve,” or slow the spread of the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19.
They’re also a shift from the advice Americans have been hearing since the coronavirus pandemic began.
The World Health Organization and the CDC have repeatedly said that most people do not need to wear masks unless they are sick and coughing. In February, the U.S. surgeon general even urged the public to stop buying medical masks, warning that it would not help against the spread of the coronavirus. Part of the reason was to reserve N95 respirators and masks for healthcare workers like myself who are on the front lines and exposed to people with COVID-19.
Today, there is much more data and evidence on how COVID-19 is spread, and the prevalence of the disease itself is far more widespread than previously thought.