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Should you wear a face mask to protect against coronavirus?

Posted at 7:53 AM, Feb 26, 2020
and last updated 2020-02-26 11:00:30-05

As cases of the new coronavirus continue to spread worldwide, some people are doing what they can to try to protect themselves against the potentially deadly virus.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention asked Americans on Tuesday to be prepared for the COVID-19 illness to spread in the United States, saying it's not a question of if, but when.

The face mask industry is booming amid concerns about the outbreak. The nation's largest surgical mask manufacturer is struggling to keep pace with skyrocketing demand for its products. And The Associated Press reports that some countries are placing price ceilings on face masks to fight price gouging.

But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says it "does not recommend that people who are well wear a facemask to protect themselves from respiratory diseases, including COVID-19."

"Facemasks should be used by people who show symptoms of COVID-19 to help prevent the spread of the disease to others," the CDC's website says. "The use of facemasks is also crucial for health workers and people who are taking care of someone in close settings (at home or in a health care facility)."

Dr. Frank Esper, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at the Cleveland Clinic, explained the circumstances when some really sick people should wear a mask.

"If they are coughing, if they are feeling like they have symptoms, we do ask them to put on mask when they are coming to our waiting room or ER or into a public space," he said. "It helps prevent the spread of infection."

Esper and other experts say washing your hands frequently is the best way to prevent the spread of infectious illnesses like coronavirus or, more commonly, the flu. The CDC advises washing your hands often with soap and water for at least 20 seconds, or use an alcohol-based hand sanitizer that contains at least 60% alcohol if soap and water are not available.

CDC: Coronavirus will hit U.S.

You should also avoid touching your eyes, nose and mouth with unwashed hands, avoid contact with sick people, cover your mouth when you cough and sneeze, and disinfect objects and surfaces frequently, the CDC says.

So far, the coronavirus has sickened tens of thousands of people around the world. Most cases have been in China, but it has spread to other countries, too, and South Korea, Italy and Iran have reported significant daily jumps in cases.

There are only a handful of confirmed cases in the United States.

Health officials are concerned the rapid spread of the virus could mimic the outbreak of the SARS virus (Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome) in the early 2000s, during which many people also wore masks for protection.

Following the SARS outbreak, which also originated in China, researchers in Australia wanted to test data that suggested transmission of the viral respiratory infection was significantly reduced with the use of face masks as well as other infection control measures.

The study, published in the International Journal of Infectious Diseases in 2008, found that masks were 80% effective in protecting against clinical influenza-like illness when worn consistently. There wasn't much difference between the two types of masks tested — P2 masks and surgical masks — according to the study. However, the researchers also noted that "compliance with mask use was less than 50%," meaning half the people in the study did not actually keep wearing them as directed.