• The White House may recommend that everyone in the US cover their face when going out.
  • Masks are not perfect at preventing viral illnesses, especially because many people don’t wear them properly.
  • But epidemiologists say they may help, especially if people put them on before they know they’re sick.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

Over 90% of the US is on lockdown to prevent further spread of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. Now, the White House is considering whether to recommend that people wear face coverings or cloth masks when going outside.

President Trump didn’t announce any official recommendations on Thursday evening, but he did acknowledge that new guidance may be in the works. Vice President Mike Pence confirmed that new recommendations from the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention will be coming out “in the next several days.”

“I think they’re going to be coming out with regulations on that,” Trump told reporters at the White House. “I don’t think they’ll be mandatory, because some people don’t want to do that. But, if people wanted, as an example on the masks, if people wanted to wear them, they can.”

It’s a stark reversal from the early days of the pandemic, when public health experts at the CDC said the agency did not “recommend the use of face masks for the general public,” and the US surgeon general urged Americans to stop buying masks.

The reasons for that advice were twofold: scientists still don’t have solid evidence that masks work well at preventing infectious disease outbreaks, and masks are in such short supply that public health experts have stressed they should be saved chiefly for healthcare workers (and caretakers) who are more exposed to the virus than the general public.

Officials still say that surgical masks and other respirators should be reserved for healthcare workers, because people in close contact with infected patients run the highest risk of catching the novel virus by sniffing or ingesting it.

Trump suggested that people might use scarves instead.

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“If people wanted to use scarves, which they have, many people have them, they can,” he said.

flu mask 1918

Foto: A typist wears a mask while working at her office desk during the 1918 influenza epidemic. Source: PhotoQuest/Getty Images

Masks were used widely during the 1918 flu pandemic

This isn’t the first time that people have covered up in the US during an outbreak. Masks were in widespread use during the 1918 flu pandemic in the US, even though experts debate whether they did much to stop that viral outbreak from spreading.

But the coronavirus is different from influenza, and there’s still a lot scientists don’t know about how it works and spreads. One recent study in Singapore suggested that more than 6% of coronavirus cases acquired there likely came from people who were sick – but before they ever displayed symptoms.

“We’re wearing masks not only to protect ourselves, but because if we have been infected, we’re then protecting other people by wearing the mask,” Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and a mask researcher at the University of Hong Kong’s School of Public Health, previously told Business Insider.

Laredo, Texas is now forcing everyone to wear masks or cover up with bandanas when they step outside, or face a potential $1,000 fine.

Cowling said masks may help prevent some infections, but suggested that it may be too late to introduce them in the US.

“The argument … about everybody wearing a mask is not that it will prevent everyone from getting infected – it’s that it will slow down transmission in the community a bit,” he said. “I think it’s too late to do a lot for the current epidemic, because it’s already spread such a lot, and then the cases that you’re getting now are people infected two or three weeks ago. And the lockdowns that are in place will hopefully really slow down infections.”

US Coronavirus Response Coordinator Dr. Deborah Birx cautioned on Thursday that any new face-covering recommendations rolled out by the White House shouldn’t be seen as a substitute for the social distancing measures and stepped-up hand hygiene practices the government is already recommending.

She said the data on US infection rates so far suggests there isn’t universal adherence to the federal coronavirus guidelines, which recommend people stay home whenever possible, avoid shopping and socializing, wash their hands often, and avoid touching their faces.

“We don’t expect people to be having dinner parties, and cocktail parties,” Dr. Birx said. “I can tell by the curve, and as it is today, that not every American is following it.”