A lot of the effort to slow the spread of COVID-19 comes down to a seemingly simple concept: Wearing a mask.
But the issue has proved a thorny one. Health authorities have changed their guidance on who should wear masks and when. This has fueled some confusion and even some suspicion.
But since the coronavirus first appeared, authorities have gained a better understanding of how it spreads and how masks can help slow it.
Here’s a look at how what we know about masks has changed, and how government officials are increasingly warming up to the idea of mandating the use of masks.
What the experts say
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention long has advised people to wear masks because they help prevent people who are infected — whether they know it or not — from spreading the coronavirus.
But last week, the CDC added a new reason: Masks can protect wearers who are not infected, though to a lesser degree.
The agency referred to a study led by Japanese researchers that found masks block about 60 percent of the amount of virus that comes out of an infected person.
When an uninfected person wearing a mask is near an infected person who isn’t wearing one, the amount of virus the uninfected person inhaled fell by up to half.
But when both people are wearing masks, that produced the best result. The decline in virus particles reaching the second person was close to 70 percent less.
So if everyone wears a mask when social distancing is not feasible, the infection rate will be cut, experts say.
But experts say masks, while helpful, are not perfect. Keeping a distance, being in well-ventilated areas and washing hands are also important precautions.
How is this different?
U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted on Feb. 29: “Seriously people STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching (hashtag) Coronavirus” But today, Adams has a different message pinned to the top of his Twitter account.
“When we can’t stay six feet away from others, please, I’m begging you, wear a face covering,” Adams says in the videotaped July 2 tweet.
In July, the CDC said that cloth face coverings are a critical tool in the fight against COVID-19, particularly when everyone wears them.
Similarly, the World Health Organization early on had advised against mask-wearing for the public, saying it might lead to a false sense of security and that people who didn’t know how to use them properly could infect themselves.
The World Health Organization changed its advice in June, and now says people should wear them when they can’t be socially distant.
In the United States, there are no nationwide rules. The CDC has made only recommendations.
The approach from the White House has been casual at best. Before the election, President Donald Trump often ridiculed his then-Democratic opponent, Joe Biden, for wearing one in public. The president also held rallies that brought together thousands of supporters, most of them not wearing masks.
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Biden, now president-elect, has said repeatedly there should be a nationwide mask mandate. He has also promised to ask every governor to impose mask rules. For those who refuse, he’s vowed to go around them to seek similar mandates at the county or local level until the entire country is covered.
States vary on masks
As of Tuesday, 36 states have some type of mask mandate.
Republican governors in Iowa, North Dakota and Utah — all states that are being hit hard — have recently reversed course and required at least limited mask use.
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