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CDC Changes Course, Says Everyone Should Cover Their Face In Public


Got masks? Well, you should. There's new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which now says they recommend wearing cloth face coverings in public, where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain like the grocery store or the pharmacy or a workplace. NPR's Allison Aubrey joins us. Morning, Allison.


SIMON: We know we're supposed to keep 6 feet between each other when we're out of the house. And, of course...

AUBREY: That's right.

SIMON: ...We've known for weeks wash our hands. Tell us now about covering our faces.

AUBREY: Well, the CDC says that what scientists know now, given recent studies, is that a lot of people with coronavirus lack symptoms or they have only mild symptoms, and they can transmit the virus. So this means if an infected person goes out and interacts in close quarters with others, they can unknowingly spread it. One person who pushed to make this change recommending broader use of masks is the former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: So if you're a person who has the coronavirus and you're mildly symptomatic - you don't think you're sick - or you're asymptomatic and don't even know that you have symptoms at all, and you have a mask on, you're going to be far less likely to transmit the infections.

SIMON: But, Allison, we know there's a shortage of masks for health care workers who need them.

AUBREY: That's right.

SIMON: We're being asked to aid in what's being characterized as a war effort and put our own masks together.

AUBREY: You know, the CDC guidance is pretty open-ended It says cloth face coverings fashioned from household items made from, quote, "common materials at low cost" can be used. And if you go online, there is no shortage of ideas of how to make these masks. You can fold them. Origami masks. You can 3D print them. You can sew them. There are Burberry-inspired masks on Etsy for the fashion minded. So, you know, there are some unanswered questions. Not all studies point to a benefit from cloth masks compared to other types of medical-grade masks. And the type of material you use probably can make a difference. A physician I spoke to yesterday pointed out that a face covering made of a knitted wool scarf where you can see the holes is probably not as protective compared to, say, a tight weave cotton fabric. So a CDC spokesperson told me they do hope to add some more details soon, and they have information on there now about how best to wear and how to clean your face coverings.

SIMON: There is a social aspect, too, though isn't there? Wearing a mask sends a message.

AUBREY: Yeah, I think so. I mean, I spoke to Michael Klompas, he's an infectious disease expert at Brigham and Women's Hospital. And, you know, he told me there is a symbolic power in wearing a mask. He says to him, the message it sends is this.

MICHAEL KLOMPAS: Watch out. There's a public health crisis right now. There's a virus going around. We need to be on our top guard. And so I think it can actually be a reinforcer, a reminder of the state of crisis that we face here in society.

SIMON: President Trump emphasized yesterday this is voluntary. He volunteered that he's not volunteering. What do experts say?

AUBREY: (Laughter) That's right.

SIMON: Yeah. What do experts say?

AUBREY: The president kind of downplayed it. Some say he downplayed it, calling it voluntary, saying do it if you want to. And a federal official told me last night that the White House kind of leaned on the CDC to emphasize that this recommendation is especially aimed at people living in hot spot areas where there are a lot of cases. But the CDC, this source tells me, really wanted to encourage all Americans everywhere to follow the guidance because it's not just a few hot spots. So at this point, staying socially distant, obviously, and covering your face when you must go out into a crowded space could benefit all of us.

SIMON: NPR's Allison Aubrey. Thanks so much.

AUBREY: Thank you, Scott. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.