Should all Americans be wearing masks in the COVID-19 pandemic?

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Toward the beginning of 2020, in the early stages of the coronavirus pandemic in America, controversy surrounded the question of whether it was necessary or advisable for US residents to wear face masks. At the time—which now seems a lot longer ago than it is—most Americans were receiving mixed messages at best about the need for masks.

Multiple agencies at the time, including the US Surgeon General and the Center for Disease Control (CDC), expressly said not to wear masks at the outset of the COVID-19 crisis. Their rationale was that the use of face masks among the general public would create a shortage for medical personnel who dealt with new cases of coronavirus every day. Some experts claimed masks weren’t effective in restricting the spread of COVID-19 anyway.

All that thinking has changed in the span of just a few weeks. The CDC now recommends that all members of the public wear “simple cloth face coverings” to impede the progress of COVID-19 throughout communities.

Clearer Understanding of How COVID-19 Spreads

Several developments have contributed to the adoption of the new directives. First and foremost is the exponential rise in diagnosed cases of COVID-19, a sad truth that cleared up early confusion and underestimations of how widespread the pandemic would be in America.

Certain understandings about the nature of COVID-19 have also become more commonly accepted in the American scientific community and public authorities. Most pertinent is the fact that the virus can be spread by those who show few or no effects of the disease, or “asymptomatic” carriers of COVID-19.

While many longtime researchers thought this to be the case, widespread acknowledgment of this fact among some public figures in America has only happened recently. Chinese scientist George Gao told Science magazine it’s especially important to grasp this facet of COVID-19: “This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact… When you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”

Medical Experts’ Guidelines for Wearing Masks

The medical community offers suggestions and guidelines for Americans wearing masks. The public should avoid wearing surgical masks or temporary M95 respirators—there actually is a shortage for those masks, and the medical profession needs as many of those as they can get.

Instead, cloth masks made from typical household materials are highly recommended. The CDC advises that these masks “fit snugly but comfortably” against the side of the face and be securable with cloth ties or ear loops. They should allow for easy breathing, have a few layers of fabric, and stand up to repeated cleanings in washing and drying machines. As you’ve no doubt been doing regularly, wash your hands before putting your mask on, and don’t touch your face while you’re wearing it.

It should be stressed that face masks aren’t necessarily intended to stop one from contracting the coronavirus—rather, it’s a measure to prevent you from spreading it to others, whether you know you have it or not. Social distancing, therefore, remains the most vital component of the public response to COVID-19. But face masks can help, in whatever small way, to “flatten the curve” of new coronavirus cases.

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