The Slatest

Experts Increasingly Question Advice Against Widespread Use of Face Masks

A man and a woman, both wearing masks, sit on a bench in the park
New York’s Central Park on Thursday. Cindy Ord/Getty Images

Since the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, the message from Western public health authorities has been pretty uniform in stating that the public at large shouldn’t be wearing face masks to protect against COVID-19. Surgeon General Jerome Adams even sent an all-caps message to all Americans in late February imploring them to “STOP BUYING MASKS!” because they are “NOT effective” for the general public. Experts, however, aren’t so sure that’s the case, particularly considering that health authorities in some Asian countries have been calling on everyone to wear face masks to prevent the virus from spreading.

These experts insist that while it’s true that face masks are hardly a cure-all and don’t replace more important measures such as social distancing, they could still help. That’s particularly the case for essential workers who can’t avoid crowded areas like public transportation. Although regular surgical masks are hardly ideal for protection, they do seem to be better than nothing. The New York Times cites a study of strategies used during the 2003 SARS outbreak that found washing hands 10 times a day was 55 percent effective in stopping transmission. But wearing a mask was more effective, at around 68 percent.

One key point is that health authorities have long recommended masks for those who are sick in order to prevent them from infecting others. And considering COVID-19 has a lot of asymptomatic cases, widespread use of masks could help prevent those who do not know they are carrying the virus from spreading it to others. “It’s really a perfectly good public health intervention that’s not used,” KK Cheng, a public health expert at the University of Birmingham, tells Science. “It’s not to protect yourself. It’s to protect people against the droplets coming out of your respiratory tract.” Plus, if everyone is wearing them, it reduces any stigma attached to the face masks themselves.

Another side benefit of wearing masks, some experts say, is that it can help people avoid touching their faces (although, to be fair, some have said the exact opposite, that wearing a face mask actually encourages people to touch their faces). But in order to be most effective, the general public needs to receive some training on how to properly wear protective equipment. “I think the average person, if they were taught how to wear a mask properly … would have some protection against infection in the community,” Benjamin Cowling, an epidemiologist at the University of Hong Kong, said.

The key problem, though, is supply. As surely everyone knows by now, masks are really difficult to obtain, and calling on the general public to wear them would decrease those available for health care workers and other emergency workers. After all, it’s difficult to call for a widespread use of masks when hospital workers are being told to reuse their protective gear because there is a shortage. Still, Matt McCarthy, an assistant professor of medicine at Weill Cornell, tweeted that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would be changing its guidelines on masks over the next 10 days to advise Americans to wear them. The CDC replied to the tweet saying there is no schedule to update its guidance on the issue.