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Nations Change Guidance on Cloth Face Masks

The latest tools in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic might be in your closet. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now urging Americans to wear face masks when they venture outside, and even homemade cloth masks can be effective if used correctly.

Currently, the CDC reports that recent studies into the spread of the novel coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2, show that asymptomatic individuals can transmit the virus to others in close proximity through speaking, coughing, or sneezing. As a result, “CDC recommends wearing face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”

This reverses previous guidance and skepticism over the efficacy of cloth masks—which were said to be less effective than N95 respirators or surgical masks. However, medical-grade masks are in short supply.

The CDC’s guidance conflicts with the World Health Organization (WHO), which stands behind its recommendation that masks are only needed by people displaying COVID-19 symptoms like coughing or sneezing, those starting to feel sick, or those caring for the sick. Mask use can backfire if they are mishandled, such as if the user does not clean or dispose of the mask between each use or if they touch their face more often while using it, Al Jazeera reports.

Some countries and regions have advocated or required the use of masks in public during the pandemic, however. In Wuhan, China—where the outbreak originated in late 2019—no one was allowed onto the street without a mask during the quarantine.

Shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and additional research into how the disease spreads have led other countries to change their tunes about widespread use of face masks.

European countries such as the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Austria, and Bulgaria have either required or recommended broad face mask use when citizens go out.

The Czech Republic made mask-wearing mandatory, and the government has promoted the effort with PR campaigns and public appearances by politicians wearing face masks. In a government-sponsored video, the narrator espouses the tactic, saying that face masks fundamentally reduce the transmission of diseases from the wearer to others. “When we both have a face mask, I protect you, you protect me,” she says.

The U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) announced new guidance Sunday that anyone on DOD property, installations, or facilities must wear a cloth face covering when they cannot maintain six feet of social distance in public area or work centers, ABC News reports. More than 1,200 service members and DOD civilians have tested positive for COVID-19 since its outbreak.

According to the DOD memo, as reported by Newsweek, “as an interim measure, all individuals are encouraged to fashion face coverings from household items or common materials, such as clean T-shirts or other clean cloths that can cover the nose and mouth area. Medical personal protective equipment such as N95 respirators or surgical masks will not be issued for this purpose as these will be reserved for appropriate personnel.”

The CDC has released guidance on homemade or cloth face coverings, including how to make a mask, here.

For more news and resources around the coronavirus pandemic, visit the ASIS International Disease Outbreak: Security Resources page.