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WHO now says everyone should wear a mask when social distancing isn’t possible

Published Jun 5th, 2020 5:18PM EDT
Face mask
Image: YURI KOCHETKOV/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

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  • The World Health Organization on Friday issued updated guidance related to the use of face masks in fighting the coronavirus pandemic.
  • The organization now says that, when social distancing isn’t possible outside the home, all of us should be wearing a face mask in public.
  • Moreover, the organization now says that people over age 60, as well as the medically vulnerable, should wear not just a face mask but a medical mask outside.

Anyone who’s honest with themselves will have to admit that the guidance and messaging around the use of face masks as the coronavirus pandemic has dragged on has been, shall we say, less than ideal.

There was a brief period of time, for example, when some health officials said not to worry about it, since masks aren’t a foolproof way to protect yourself against the virus. Now? Most states (although there are, frustratingly, some exceptions) have some kind of guideline in place to strongly encourage citizens to wear protective face coverings in order to slow the spread of the disease, now that have a more refined understanding of how masks work — your mask protects me from you, in other words, and vice versa. Accordingly, the World Health Organization on Friday released updated guidance related to face masks, with the health agency now advising that anyone who lives in an area where community spread of the coronavirus is taking place should wear a face mask whenever they’re outside their home and when social distancing isn’t possible.

WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added, during the organization’s press briefing on Friday, that people over age 60 — as well as anyone with an underlying medical condition — should wear not merely a face mask, but a medical mask whenever they can’t socially distance. The WHO had previously recommended that only health care workers, people sickened by COVID-19 and their caregivers wear masks.

Part of the reason why mask-wearing and the messaging around it is so nuanced is because, as noted above, the mask you wear doesn’t so much protect you as it does those around you. “Masks on their own will not protect you from COVID-19,” WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus reminded reporters during the Friday briefing. For some people, wearing a mask also seems to translate in their mind into feeling protected enough that they don’t need to take other steps, though masks are supposed to be one part of a regimen that includes social distancing and frequent hand-washing.

Anecdotally, though, I’m a little worried. The longer this pandemic goes on, the more it seems the toughest enemy we have to fight is, quite simply, human nature. In other words, the longer this goes on — and the longer it goes on without you catching the virus — it seems the adherence to wearing a face mask follows an inverse pattern. Well, it’s been around this long, and I haven’t gotten the virus yet — I’ll probably be ok, seems to be the easy thought pattern to fall into. As I’ve gone grocery shopping in recent days, I’ve also been surprised that many more people seem to be forgoing masks in public.

Which is why, perhaps, the WHO’s new guidance can’t come too soon. “We are advising governments to encourage that the general public wear a mask. And we specify a fabric mask – that is, a non-medical mask,” the WHO’s technical lead expert on COVID-19, Maria Van Kerkhove, said about the updated guidance in a new interview.

“We have new research findings. We have evidence now that if this is done properly it can provide a barrier … for potentially infectious droplets.”

Andy Meek Trending News Editor

Andy Meek is a reporter based in Memphis who has covered media, entertainment, and culture for over 20 years. His work has appeared in outlets including The Guardian, Forbes, and The Financial Times, and he’s written for BGR since 2015. Andy's coverage includes technology and entertainment, and he has a particular interest in all things streaming.

Over the years, he’s interviewed legendary figures in entertainment and tech that range from Stan Lee to John McAfee, Peter Thiel, and Reed Hastings.

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