What to Know Now About Masks and Coronavirus

As the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 continues to rise sharply in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now recommending that people wear face coverings when out in public.

The new guidance to wear a nonmedical “basic cloth or fabric mask” is voluntary, President Donald Trump said Friday. But it represents a shift for the CDC, which previously said that healthy people who aren’t caring for someone who is sick don’t need to wear face masks to protect themselves from the novel coronavirus. 

The World Health Organization continues to stand by its previous advice, that medical masks be used by healthcare workers in health facilities and by people in the community who are sick and those caring for them. But while noting that research to support widespread mask use in communities is limited, the organization now says it is looking into the issue more deeply.

The CDC announcement came after a growing number of health experts began suggesting that we should all be wearing masks of some kind. In fact, several large health departments, including those of Los Angeles and New York City, had advised all residents to wear face covering when out in public even before the CDC changed its guidance.

Public health experts have also emphasized that the potential benefit of wearing a face covering is not for your own protection but to safeguard others around you. “This is to protect people around you if you are infected but do not have symptoms,” according to the CDC website. 

That’s because a significant share of people with COVID-19—perhaps a quarter, by some estimates—show no symptoms. But they may still be contagious.

“If you put a mask on someone who is ill, they are less likely to spread the virus to others,” says Tom Frieden, M.D., a former director of the CDC. “That includes people who don’t have symptoms. 

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