The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday announced changes to its guidelines on who should wear a mask during the Covid-19 pandemic and where they should wear it.
The new guidance recommends that the general public wear cloth masks made from at least three layers of fabric “on public transport, in shops, or in other confined or crowded environments.” It also says people over 60 or with preexisting conditions should wear medical masks in areas where there’s community transmission of the coronavirus and physical distancing is impossible, and that all workers in clinical settings should wear medical masks in areas with widespread transmission.
It’s a major update to the agency’s April 6 recommendations, which said members of the general public “only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with Covid-19” or “if you are coughing or sneezing.” And it’s important advice for countries around the world battling the virus, especially those in South America, the Middle East, and Africa, where the rate of Covid-19 transmission appears to be accelerating.
At a WHO press conference on June 3, Michael Ryan, an infectious disease epidemiologist and the executive director of the WHO’s Health Emergencies Programme, said WHO still believes that masks should primarily be used “for purposes of source control — in other words, for people who may be infectious, reducing the chances that they will infect someone else.”
And on Friday, WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus offered a few words of warning as part of the announcement: “Masks can also create a false sense of security, leading people to neglect measures, such as hand hygiene and physical distancing. I cannot say this clearly enough: Masks alone will not protect you from Covid-19.”
But the changes finally bring the WHO in line with many countries around the world that have made masks mandatory in crowded public spaces, including Cuba, France, Cameroon, Vietnam, Slovakia, and Honduras. While it has not made masks a requirement, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has since April 3 suggested “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Many health experts have wondered why it’s taken this long for the WHO to update its mask guidelines, given the accumulation of evidence that they may be helpful and have few downsides.
Eric Topol, a research methods expert and director of the Scripps Research Translational Institute, calls WHO’s delay “preposterous.” He adds, “I have great respect for the World Health Organization — but they got the mask story all wrong, and we have lost people because of it.” Lawrence Gostin, director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown University, agrees, saying, “Everyone should be wearing a mask.”