Coronavirus outbreak sparks face mask debate: Should you wear them?

People wearing masks due to concerns with the spread of the coronavirus walk past the Washington Memorial on the National Mall on March 27, 2020 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Olivier DOULIERY / AFP) (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

Should the general public wear masks during the coronavirus epidemic in the U.S.?

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The debate over wearing face masks to protect against the novel coronavirus is wide-ranging, with health officials signaling a possible shift in the recommendations for the general public.

Currently, major health organizations -- including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) -- have continued to urge those who are healthy to leave surgical masks and the more protective N95 respirators to medical professionals, who across the country are reusing single-use medical masks due to widespread shortages.

As the pandemic rages on, however, some have challenged such recommendations. On Twitter, social media users on Monday slammed a tweet from the U.S. Surgeon General that linked to an article about the WHO standing by its recommendations for healthy people to not wear face masks.

But officials at the CDC are now mulling a change to current guidelines, recommending all Americans cover their faces with nonmedical homemade masks, scarves or even bandanas when in public, The Washington Post reported.

"If the CDC does put out such guidance, I would respect it. I can tell you having drafted many CDC guidelines over the years that these are done very carefully and on the best available evidence," former CDC Chief Medical Officer Dr. Robert Amler told Fox News on Tuesday. "Those guidelines, when they do go out, are not casual or frivolous."


"It's protective for people around you -- that's going to be the case whether or not there is a shortage," he added of masks.

Though such guidelines have yet to be confirmed -- Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, told CNN on Tuesday that "the idea of getting broad community-wide use of masks is under active discussion" at the CDC -- experts seem to have mixed opinions, some encouraging the change while others expressing worry it could give people a false sense of security and ultimately lead to less adherence to crucial social-distancing guidelines.

"Homemade masks theoretically could offer some protection if the materials and fit were optimized, but this is uncertain," Jeffrey Duchin, a health official in Seattle and King County, Wash., home to the first major COVID-19 outbreak in the U.S., told the Post. "It's also possible that mask-wearing might increase the risk for infection if other recommendations (like hand washing and distancing) are less likely to be followed or if the mask is contaminated and touched."

Others argue there is little proof that masks do much to prevent acquiring a disease, but could be useful to stop the spread from asymptomatic carriers, as the virus can be transmitted via respiratory droplets when an infected person coughs or sneezes. Even walking through a crowded area could heighten the risk of coming into contact with infectious droplets, experts say.

When arguing for the use of masks, some infectious disease experts have also pointed to Asian countries as an example of how ubiquitous use can affect "crowd psychology." In other words, if everyone wears a mask, there is less stigma attached to them and people may be less inclined to think the wearer is sick, experts explained to The New York Times. (It's worth noting that In East Asia -- namely in countries such as China, Taiwan and Japan, among others -- surgical masks are not only worn by sick people hoping to prevent the spread of illness but also for air-quality reasons, as well as after natural disasters, according to a 2014 report on the history of surgical mask usage in Asia.)

That said, there is also a risk of contamination from the face-covering itself, experts warned.

"If your hands are contaminated, and then you touch the mask, you can contaminate the outside of it. You can then contaminate yourself by touching the outside of it and then touching your eyes, nose or face," Amler said.

Additionally, Amler and other medical experts have expressed concern specifically about the general public using N95 respirators, an important piece of personal protective equipment (PPE) that filters out some 95 percent of particles, including bacteria and viruses. These respirators require training to use properly -- training that most people in nonmedical fields don't have. Though the CDC may change its guidelines to recommend the public cover their faces while in public, the use of N95s would not be included in such advice.

Other health professionals who spoke to Fox News warned against the use of surgical masks, citing current shortages, but were open to the use of bandanas or scarves.

"Save the surgical masks for healthcare professionals. Even if you can purchase them online, don't. Health care workers and first responders need them more than average individuals," Summer Johnson McGee, the dean of University of New Haven's School of Health Sciences, told Fox News.

"If you have to go out for essential shopping, which is the only reason anyone should be outside their homes at this point, maintaining a distance of at least 6 feet from others plus the use of a bandana or scarf to cover your nose and mouth should offer sufficient protection," she added.

Fox News' Alexandria Hein contributed to this report.

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