Science’s COVID-19 reporting is supported by the Pulitzer Center.
As cases of coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) ballooned last month, people in Europe and North America scrambled to get their hands on surgical masks to protect themselves. Health officials jumped in to discourage them, worried about the limited supply of masks for health care personnel. “Seriously people-STOP BUYING MASKS!” began a 29 February tweet from U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) have both said that only people with COVID-19 symptoms and those caring for them should wear masks.
But some health experts, including the director of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, think that’s a mistake. Health authorities in parts of Asia have encouraged all citizens to wear masks in public to prevent the spread of the virus, regardless of whether they have symptoms. And the Czech Republic took the uncommon step last week of making nose and mouth coverings mandatory in public spaces, prompting a grassroots drive to hand make masks.