Should You Wear a Face Mask Outside?

Eldis Sula
April 02, 2020 - 6:38 am

As coronavirus case numbers soar across the country, people are wondering: Is it time to wear face masks outside?

While the face mask has become synonymous with COVID-19 in images from all over the world, messaging has been mixed on how effectively they protect against the virus and who should wear them.

Here’s what to know about protective face coverings and whether you need to wear them when you go outside.

I thought you didn’t need to wear one if you weren’t sick?

When coronavirus began to spread in the U.S. earlier this year, customers promptly stocked up on face masks to protect themselves.

However, experts warned that masks do little to prevent contracting the virus, and overbuying had led to a shortage that could harm medical professionals.

In February, surgeon general Jerome M. Adams tweeted angrily: “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

Why are we talking about it again?

As the number of cases in the U.S. have skyrocketed in the last month, health experts are revisiting the question of whether the general public should wear face masks.

On Monday, CDC Director Robert Redfield told NPR that the organization is taking another look at the data around mask use by the public.

"I can tell you that the data and this issue of whether it's going to contribute [to prevention] is being aggressively reviewed as we speak," Redfield said.

Dr. Deborah Birx, the White House’s coronavirus response coordinator, signaled that the task force is weighing whether to change the official recommendation on masks.

Speaking to NPR, former FDA Commissioner Scott Bottlieb said a mask offers “an additional layer of protection for those who have to go out.” Additionally, Gottlieb included the general use of masks in a road map he published to reopen the country.

How exactly can (and can’t) masks protect against COVID-19?

In a nutshell, face masks can prevent contagious particles from being released from an infected person’s mouth.

However, because many people who contract the disease display no symptoms, or only mild ones, it may be prudent for everyone to wear masks.

Speaking to Science, George Cao, director general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, warned against the risk of general populations in the U.S. and Europe not wearing face masks.

If worn by people who are asymptomatic, a face mask “can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others," Gao said.

In other words, wearing a face mask protects others from getting the disease from you if you have it but are not showing symptoms.

What does the CDC say?

The CDC is reviewing and weighing research surrounding the general use of face masks.

But according to Dr. John Torres, a medical correspondent for NBC News, the organization has not issued official new guidelines advising the general public to wear masks.

“I talked with the CDC yesterday, (and) they said they have no plans to change their guidelines,” Dr. Torres told TODAY on Wednesday. “Their guidelines are still that they recommend that people in the general public shouldn't be wearing them.”

While no country-wide orders have been made, some local leaders, like Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti, are urging residents to wear masks.

In an address to his city on Wednesday, Garcetti identified two groups of people who should be wearing protective covering: 1) nurses, doctors and healthcarer professionals and 2) “the rest of us.”

He recommended Angelenos use a non-medical face covering while in public.

"If you have to go out we recommend you use non-medical grade masks or facial coverings and not take the ones that are for first responders," he said. "Please do not get medical-grade or surgical or N95 masks."

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