Should we all be wearing masks when we go to the grocery store or the pharmacy?
In a major shift Friday, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said it now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in settings where it’s difficult to stay at least 6 feet apart from others.
The new guidance comes amid growing evidence that people who contract the virus can spread it before they develop symptoms. Many others remain asymptomatic, meaning they don’t know they have it at all, according to public health experts.
“Given the fact that there is a degree of transmission from asymptomatic individuals who may not know that they’re infected, we need to at least examine the possibility (of recommending cloth face coverings for the public),” Dr. Anthony Fauci, one of the nation’s leading experts on infectious disease, said this week, “as long as we’re absolutely certain we don’t take the masks away from … health care providers who need them.”
The new strategy echoes the message global health consultant Dr. Shan Soe-Lin has been communicating for weeks. In an opinion column published in The Boston Globe last month, Soe-Lin and her colleague, Dr. Robert Hecht, urged all Americans to begin covering their faces in public to reduce transmission of the virus.
Soe-Lin, a Yale University lecturer, told the NBC10 Boston Investigators she’s been wearing a cloth mask in public for the last three weeks.
“I’m protecting you from me and me from you,” she said.
With supplies of personal protective equipment running low at many hospitals around the country, the CDC reiterated in its new guidance Friday that the general public shouldn’t buy N95 respirator masks, which it says should continue to be reserved for health care workers and other medical first responders.
Rather, health officials are encouraging most Americans to wear other kinds of cloth face coverings, such as homemade masks, scarves or bandanas.
In addition to stopping sick people from spreading the coronavirus, some health experts, including Soe-Lin and Dr. Rishi Desai, with the public health education non-profit Osmosis, say face coverings could also help protect healthy people to some degree.
In many cases, scientists say the virus is transmitted when people touch surfaces that are contaminated, then touch their eyes, nose or mouth. Wearing a mask could stop healthy people from touching their faces, Desai said, blocking an important pathway for the virus.
Some health experts also believe the fabric can block large droplets containing the virus from an infected person’s cough or sneeze.
“Masks prevent virus -- not all the of the virus, but at least some of the virus -- from getting through,” he told NBC10. “And the less virus that can get through, the more likely your immune system can handle it.”
More on Masks and Coronavirus
Leaders in some major cities, including Los Angeles and New York, have already urged residents to wear masks in public. Face coverings are also widespread in Asia, including in China, where even people at low risk of infection are encouraged to wear disposable cloth masks.
Experts stress cloth masks should not be considered a substitution for staying home as much as possible and good social distancing. The doctors recommend washing cloth masks every day and having more than one on hand if possible so you can change your mask if it gets wet. They also stress the importance of good hand hygiene.
Still, others point to scant evidence that cloth masks are effective at keeping people healthy.
The World Health Organization recommends against mask use for the public, unless taking care of a person with a suspected case of COVID-19, the disease caused by the virus.
Nevertheless, some experts say it’s time to reassess current thinking, particularly with evidence mounting that many people unwittingly transmit the disease before they show symptoms.
“If you want to get back to work faster, if you’d like to be able to eat in a restaurant by June, then by God, we need to be socially distancing,” Soe-Lin said. “You need to put a mask on.”