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Why There’s Still So Much Confusion About Wearing Masks to Combat the Coronavirus
Photo: Sarah Kobos

Why There’s Still So Much Confusion About Wearing Masks to Combat the Coronavirus

The discourse around masks is changing at lightning speed. You might have read on Wirecutter that you don’t need a face mask to protect yourself from the coronavirus, and that health-care workers need one more than you do. Perhaps you’ve read other articles that suggest wearing a mask is better than nothing. If you’re feeling confused, you’re not alone.

One reason for all of the confusion is that the advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and other experts has changed or been in conflict. As the threat of COVID-19 grew in early March, epidemiologists and infectious disease specialists, including those we interviewed, discouraged mask wearing among the general population due to the risk of auto-contamination (getting the virus via a contaminated mask being mishandled or improperly worn) and the shortages in hospitals. As COVID-19 case numbers increased, some doctors then suggested that, at the very least, mask wearing might keep you from touching your face, a known method of transmission. And as many outlets have reported, the evidence of masks’ efficacy is mixed, and the lack of medical consensus has sparked a controversy.

The advice may soon change once again: The CDC is debating revising its guidance again this week to encourage mask wearing by all. That may be because of growing (but not definitive) evidence that the coronavirus can be transmitted via the air. And a committee from the National Academy of Sciences has told the White House that it believes the evidence points that way.

We plan to continue updating our guide to respirators to keep it as current as possible as the news develops. Meanwhile, we’re looking forward to a time when everyone knows more definitively how to guard against the virus’s transmission—and a future in which there are adequate supplies of protective gear for us to recommend in the first place.

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