Wearing a mask in public has been recommended by public health agencies in several Asian countries such as China and South Korea.
But in many western countries, the public has been told not to wear a mask unless they are sick.
The European Center for Disease Prevention and Control even warns that masks can increase the “risk of infection due to a false sense of security”, a feeling that has been echoed by other international officials.
But there is a growing fear that people without symptoms will unknowingly transmit the virus.
Potentially, one in four people with COVID-19 is asymptomatic, the director of the American Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), Robert Redfield, said on Atlanta public radio on Monday, although he did not was not immediately clear what data he was quoting.
This means, according to Redfield, that other people can spread the virus before they develop symptoms. These details prompted the US public health agency to review its guidelines for wearing face masks.
Current CDC guidelines state that only members of the public who are sick should wear masks, which is similar to guidelines established by the World Health Organization (WHO) and the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control ( ECDC).
Indeed, very few European countries have ordered the public to wear masks – but some, in particular.
Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz has made it mandatory for members of the public to wear masks in supermarkets, saying he knew it would be a big cultural change for Austrians.
President of the Czech Republic Andrej Babis recently tweeted President Donald Trump encouraging the use of masks: “Wearing a simple cloth mask reduces the spread of the virus by 80%!” The Czech Republic has made it MANDATORY for its citizens to wear a mask in the audience, “he wrote.
Experts have long argued in Western countries that there was little data to support the wearing of face masks to prevent the spread of viruses.
The Robert Koch Institute in Germany has maintained its recommendation that hand washing and social isolation are still the best protection against the virus. Masks do not protect those who wear them and there is no evidence that they protect others, said director Lothar Wieler.
They also pointed out that there is a difference between surgical grade masks and other protective masks.
But Dr. Harvey Fineberg, chair of a US National Academy of Sciences committee on infectious diseases advising the White House, wrote in a letter to the government on April 1 that there is evidence suggesting that this coronavirus can be spread only by expiration or conversation, citing several recent studies.
Fineberg wrote that a recent study from the University of Hong Kong suggested that wearing a surgical mask could help prevent the spread of RNA viruses, such as SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID- 19.
But in the midst of a global shortage of masks, some American cities suggest people cover their faces in public with a homemade mask or scarf.
Indeed, many countries are scrambling to provide healthcare workers with the surgical quality face masks needed to protect healthcare workers. France and the United Kingdom have notably ordered millions of masks to protect health workers.
“The chronic global shortage of personal protective equipment is now one of the most urgent threats to our collective ability to save lives. We must provide the protection that health workers deserve to save our lives, “a WHO spokesperson told Euronews.
But in the midst of the growing discussion on masks and protection, WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Wednesday that the agency “continues to assess more widely the potential use of masks to control the transmission of COVID-19 at the community level ”.
For now, they are only recommending to those who know they are sick to wear them to avoid spreading to others.