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Should everyone be wearing a mask to protect against coronavirus?

Face masks are critical protection for medical workers caring for COVID-19 patients, but should everyone else also be wearing them? So far, federal health officials have warned against the general public wearing face masks when outside the home, but that guidance could be changing soon. Amid a global shortage of these masks, William Brangham reports on the conflicting debate.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    A majority of the country is now being told to stay at home and to keep their distance from others to try and stop the spread of the coronavirus.

    Now some in the public health community are wondering if the general public should also be wearing face masks.

    William Brangham is back with a report on the growing debate.

  • William Brangham:

    Face masks are a critical protective shield for the medical workers who are caring for the sickest COVID-19 patients.

    This virus enters the body via tiny droplets through the eyes, nose, and mouth, so putting a barrier over the face can help stop infection. In these wards, masks are meant to be worn every moment workers are exposed to the virus.

    But what about the rest of us outside hospitals? What about those of us who have to go to work around other people? Should we be wearing masks? What about people who, when they need to leave the house to go to the grocery store or the doctor, should they wear a mask then?

    And if everyone did, would that change the course of this pandemic? The government's advice about all of this may be changing.

    Until just recently, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said, only health personnel and people confirmed to be sick with COVID-19 should be wearing masks.

    And , similarly, that's what Dr. Anthony Fauci argued just a few weeks ago "on 60 Minutes."

  • Anthony Fauci:

    Right now, people shouldn't be walk — there's no reason to be walking around with a mask.

  • William Brangham:

    Even earlier this week, the U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, said masks on the general population not only wouldn't help, but might hurt.

  • Surgeon General Jerome Adams:

    Wearing a mask improperly can actually increase your risk of getting disease. It can also give you a false sense of security.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Leana Wen, an emergency physician at George Washington University and Baltimore's former public health director, agrees.

  • Leana Wen:

    There just isn't evidence that everyone wearing masks will prevent the transmission of coronavirus in our communities.

    The recommendation is that people who are ill should be wearing masks, and certainly health care workers should be wearing masks. But, everyday people, the recommendation is not that everyone should be going around wearing masks.

  • William Brangham:

    But that recommendation may be changing.

    The head of the CDC said new evidence indicates that a significant percentage of people without symptoms may be unknowingly spreading the virus. If they wore masks, perhaps even homemade, fabric ones, it's believed that transmission could be reduced.

    Dr. Harlan Krumholz is a cardiologist and health care researcher at Yale University.

  • Harlan Krumholz:

    There are plenty of people in society who are going to work every day, placing themselves at risk, in order to keep society going, in order to deliver packages, to provide groceries, to enable those vital services, policemen and firemen and firewomen and policewomen, all going out and doing their jobs, but placing themselves in positions where they're around others.

    It's incumbent upon us to protect them. They themselves need to be wearing masks and protective gear. But we also need to be wearing masks to protect them.

  • William Brangham:

    N95 masks are considered the best, then surgical masks like these. Right now, there aren't many rigorous studies comparing the effectiveness of surgical masks to handmade cloth ones.

    But one thing we do know, right now, medical grade masks are in short supply nationwide.

    Here's just one example. Jennifer Radovich is a registered nurse at West Virginia University Medicine's Ruby Memorial Hospital, a hospital with a growing number of coronavirus cases. Because her wing has no N95 masks left, Radovich turned to Facebook appealing for help.

  • Jennifer Radovich:

    I figured that would be the best way to reach the public, and just said, this is what we need. I just kept sending messages out, saying, like, please help, we need these. And I have had a great response.

  • William Brangham:

    Donated masks from individuals, local construction crews, even auto body shops, started coming in.

    I have got to say, it just seems a little bit crazy that you, as a nurse, have to be calling construction crews and auto mechanics, trying to get masks to protect you in a hospital.

  • Jennifer Radovich:

    Right. Amazon has been sold out of them for weeks. And they have — I have even seen them on eBay. I have seen a box of 24 as high as $699, with 24 bids on it.

  • William Brangham:

    Wow.

  • Jennifer Radovich:

    So, yes, this is a real problem.

  • William Brangham:

    Dr. Leana Wen argues, if public health officials start recommending that the general population starts wearing masks, these shortages will get much worse.

  • Leana Wen:

    The last thing that we would want is for individuals to buy masks, hoard masks, and really make it even more challenging for our health care workers, who are going to be infected themselves, and then infect other people as a result.

    There may come a time when widespread mask usage in the U.S. makes sense. But that time is not now, because that time also requires for our country to be at the point where we can begin to loosen restrictions on social distancing, and when we have plenty of supply of masks and other equipment for health care workers.

    We are not there for either of these two milestones.

  • Governor Kim Reynolds:

    If you can sew, we need your time and talent to produce fabric face masks to protect Iowa's front-line workers.

  • William Brangham:

    But in the meantime, public officials and private citizens alike, from fashion designers to boat sail makers, have been producing masks of all kinds to try and address this national shortage.

    Even without rock-solid evidence of their effectiveness, many argue a pandemic requires as many protections as possible.

  • Harlan Krumholz:

    So, there are a lot of questions about what mask do you need in what situation and how much protection do they confer? The idea is that some barrier is better than nothing.

    Do you need evidence beyond a shadow of a doubt that it's effective before people start wearing them? Or do we say that, in this moment of time, it's prudent to do so? And I favor the idea that we should.

  • William Brangham:

    And just in the last two days, the CDC director, Robert Redfield, the U.S. surgeon general, Jerome Adams, and Anthony Fauci all signaled a possible change in federal guidance about masks.

  • Anthony Fauci:

    When we get in a situation where we have enough masks, I believe there will be some very serious consideration about more broadening this recommendation.

  • President Donald Trump:

    We're making millions and millions of masks, but we want them to go to the hospitals.

  • William Brangham:

    President Trump has said mask manufacturers are working overtime, but, so far, he has not invoked his authority to order other companies to start making masks.

    For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm William Brangham.

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