Last month, the surgeon general issued an all-caps plea to Americans: "STOP BUYING MASKS!" But as the coronavirus outbreak worsens, a more nuanced debate is unfolding about whether Americans should be wearing masks, or some type of face covering, in public. Nobody is suggesting that people wear surgical masks or N95 masks, which are desperately needed for health care providers and first-responders. But do-it-yourself masks are gaining popularity, and more health officials are encouraging them as a way to limit the virus's spread. Coverage:
- New guidance? The CDC is considering changing its official guidance on face coverings, reports the Washington Post. The current guidelines state that healthy people don't need them, but the change under consideration would suggest that people wear cloth coverings (cotton is popular), even of the do-it-yourself variety.
- Risk: Those opposed say nonmedical masks may put people more at risk by giving them a false sense of security. They might, for instance, be more liable to touch their faces, an argument put forth by Dr. Anthony Fauci earlier this month. But Politico reports that more health experts—see this op-ed by a research scientist in the Washington Post—say the evidence doesn't back that up.
- Reward: While DIY masks wouldn't protect the wearer as well as a medical mask, they would help limit droplets emitted by infected people, especially asymptomatic ones who don't realize they have the illness. Science interviews a number of health authorities around the world and sums up their argument: "The greatest benefit of masking the masses ... likely comes not from shielding the mouths of the healthy but from covering the mouths of people already infected." Thus, the spread of the virus might be limited.
- One view: “Guidance needs to change and needs to be clear that these nonmedical, nonsurgical masks are beneficial to the general public and should be worn when outside of the home," Robert Hecht, a professor of epidemiology at the Yale School of Public Health, tells Politico.
- How to make: At the New York Times, Farhad Manjoo is in favor, and his op-ed includes a link to an easy how-to video. A more complicated guide in the piece requires a little bit of sewing. "Making a mask for yourself and those you love may be a perfect way to spend an afternoon in lockdown," Manjoo writes. One caution: You've to keep it clean, because a dirty mask may do more harm than no mask at all, he points out.
- Elsewhere: Other countries encourage and even mandate the use of masks in public, and the Lancet breaks down the differing guidelines. Politico notes that some places where the use of masks is widespread, including South Korea and Singapore, are seeing lower rates of infection than in the US.
(Read more coronavirus