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Ignore the mixed messages and wear that mask

We are learning that masks can provide a measure of protection from the coronavirus if used properly. And the CDC may soon reverse itself and encourage people to wear face coverings during the pandemic.

A woman wears a protective mask and gloves as she walks on a Chicago sidewalk on Sunday.
Nam Y. Huh/AP photo

In a democracy, government officials must always tell it straight — especially during a pandemic — and never hide behind a mask of misinformation.

Yet it appears the American people have been fed misleading advice from many sources, including the federal government, downplaying the protection face masks can provide against COVID-19.

The best advice now, as best as we can suss out, is that you should consider wearing a mask, even of the homemade variety, whenever you must venture out into a public space, even if you believe you are healthy. It may provide at least some marginal protection.

That’s not the official advice of the federal government — not yet — but the official advice has not been consistent or trustworthy. We’re just telling you what we would do. We would wear a mask.

At least as early as late last month, official sources were discouraging people who had not been infected by the coronavirus from wearing a mask. On Feb. 29, for example, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted “Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has repeatedly stated that masks should be worn only by people stricken by the virus and those caring for them.

Now, though, we are learning that masks possibly can provide a measure of protection for people who aren’t sick, if used properly. And the CDC, it was reported Monday, may soon reverse itself and encourage people to wear face coverings of some sort during the pandemic.

Why hasn’t this been the message all along?

Apparently there are several understandable, yet ultimately unacceptable, reasons.

Public health authorities, for one, don’t want people stockpiling high-quality masks, aggravating shortages for health care workers and others on the front lines of combating the pandemic.

Also, when a mask isn’t properly used, it’s not nearly as effective as people might believe. The worry has been that if people think wearing a mask provides strong protection, they will ignore other essential safety measures, such as physical distancing and thorough hand-washing.

We get that. As Mayor Lori Lightfoot learned when she was forced to close down the lakefront because people were ignoring physical distancing, it can be darn hard to get people to follow the rules.

But the result of this earlier questionable advice about masks — just don’t bother — might be that more people have spread and caught the virus. It never made sense all along to say that the same masks that are essential to the health of doctors and nurses offer the general public no particular protection.

The better informed the American people are, even if that information is highly nuanced, the sooner our nation will turn the corner in the fight against COVID-19.

A few more key points:

  • Nobody who is not sick should be trying to get their hands on N95 respirator masks, which screen out the virus best. Those masks are in short supply and must go first to health care workers. Gov. J.B. Pritzker on Monday complained that the federal government promised to send Illinois 300,000 N95 masks but instead sent surgical masks that are far less effective.
  • Nobody should be discouraged from fashioning their own simpler masks, which can, in fact, protect the user — and anybody nearby — from droplets dispersed by coughing, sneezing or even normal talking. Combined with physical distancing, careful hand-washing and other measures, even the most basic of masks, such as one fashioned from a couple of layers of a T-shirt, might help slow the spread of the virus.
  • The advice that only sick people wear masks overlooks the fact that many people can be sick while exhibiting no symptoms. When they wear a mask during that dormant period, they are less likely to spread the disease.
  • Yes, if masks are misused, they can actually lead to a greater transmission of the virus. For example, a person might touch a contaminated mask and then touch his face, circumventing the mask’s supposed protection. But the answer to such drawbacks is not to dismiss the value of a mask. The answer is a public information campaign that educates the American people as to the proper design of a mask, how to wear it correctly, the limits of its effectiveness and the need to take all other precautions, beginning with staying home.

If the CDC reverses course now and recommends that we all wear masks, it will not be an outlier among public health authorities. It will be falling in line with experts elsewhere around the world.

In many Asian countries, citizens are encouraged to wear nose and mouth coverings — whatever they can come up with. In Japan and South Korea, masks have been distributed to citizens. In the Czech Republic last week, masks were declared mandatory in public places.

Even in the United States, some local health authorities are beginning to acknowledge, if only indirectly, the value of even homemade masks. In Anchorage, officials are asking for donations of protective equipment, including homemade masks.

At the risk of repeating ourselves, allow us to stress one final point:

The CDC may soon reverse itself and recommend that the general public wear masks. We suspect the agency will. But that mask will be just one more weapon in the fight against the coronavirus.

Your best protections against COVID-19 still will be the actions you have been taking, we trust, all along: Staying home. Practicing physical distancing. Washing your hands the right way.

If ever it takes a village, that time is now. What we do for ourselves we do for others.

Workers at NorthCape, an outdoor furniture manufacturer, make personal protective equipment on Monday in Alsip.
Scott Olson/Getty Images

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