Why are recommendations about wearing face masks changing in midst of coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak?

Masks could help prevent spread

Views on whether people should wear masks are shifting as more is learned about coronavirus (COVID-19).

DETROIT – Views on whether people should wear masks are shifting as more is learned about coronavirus (COVID-19).

When the pandemic first started, it was believed that wearing masks wouldn’t make a difference.

While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention haven’t provided new official guidance about wearing masks, there is now a growing call for Americans to wear cloth masks.

WATCH: How to make your own face mask

Originally, it was believed that the virus was spread through large respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes. Experts now believe there is a significant amount of spread linked to people who aren’t showing symptoms -- meaning it could be transmitted by fine aerosol from talking or breathing.

Additionally, there is a high level of community spread, and it should be assumed that anyone you come in contact with could be infected. Because of this, wearing a mask could prevent people who don’t know they have COVID-19 from spreading it to other people.

It’s important to note that masks should not be a substitute for other more effective methods of slowing the spread of the virus, including hand washing, staying home and practicing social distancing.

MORE: What the CDC says you should do if you believe you have coronavirus (COVID-19)

How COVID-19 Spreads

Person-to-person spread

The virus is thought to spread mainly from person-to-person.

  • Between people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet).
  • Through respiratory droplets produced when an infected person coughs or sneezes.

These droplets can land in the mouths or noses of people who are nearby or possibly be inhaled into the lungs.

Can someone spread the virus without being sick?

  • Spread is possible before people show symptoms. People who are not showing symptoms can still be carrying the virus and can still pass it on to other people.

Spread from contact with contaminated surfaces or objects

It may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes, but this is not thought to be the main way the virus spreads.

How easily the virus spreads

How easily a virus spreads from person-to-person can vary. Some viruses are highly contagious (spread easily), like measles, while other viruses do not spread as easily. Another factor is whether the spread is sustained, spreading continually without stopping.

Prevention & Treatment

There is currently no vaccine to prevent coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19). The best way to prevent illness is to avoid being exposed to this virus. However, as a reminder, CDC always recommends everyday preventive actions to help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, including:

  • Avoid close contact with people who are sick.
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth.
  • Stay home when you are sick.
  • Cover your cough or sneeze with a tissue, then throw the tissue in the trash.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched objects and surfaces using a regular household cleaning spray or wipe.

Wash your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, especially after going to the bathroom; before eating; and after blowing your nose, coughing, or sneezing.

Click here for more guidelines from the CDC.

People who think they may have been exposed to COVID-19 should contact their healthcare provider immediately.

Question about coronavirus? Ask Dr. McGeorge here.

Read more about coronavirus here.

About the Authors:

Dr. McGeorge can be seen on Local 4 News helping Metro Detroiters with health concerns when he isn't helping save lives in the emergency room at Henry Ford Hospital.