After initially urging residents not to wear masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 (the Coronavirus), top U.S. health officials changed course over the weekend and began asking everyone to wear masks when they have to go out in public. But, those who choose to wear masks are asked to keep in mind, they will do little to protect you from catching the virus.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Surgeon General, masks are not an effective means to prevent contraction of COVID-19 or other viruses such as the flu, and are no substitution for social distancing.

U.S. Surgeon General Vice Admiral Jerome Adams even took to Twitter in late February and urged residents not buy or use masks.

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our community at risk!” he wrote on February 29.

According to health officials, viruses are so small that they can easily pass through the openings in even the best made masks available to the public.

But those recommendations changed over the weekend, with health officials asking everyone to wear masks.

The use of masks is not meant to protect the wearer from catching the virus, its meant to prevent those who already have the virus from spreading it. One of the biggest problem with the transmission and spread of COVID-19 has been that some people can have the virus and be spreading it to others for up to two weeks before they show any signs of illness.

“We now know that about 25%, and in some studies event more, of COVID-19 is transmitted when you are asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic,” Adams said in a Meet the Press interview shared on his Twitter feed. “So the CDC has now recommended that people wear clothes face masks when they are going to be out in public and can’t be more than six feet away from each other.”

While masks are considered ineffective against stopping the virus, health officials believe that they can control the spread of virus-laden droplets that are generated when infected persons speak, cough or sneeze. That includes those individuals who are asymptomatic and are currently showing no signs of infection.

“You need to make sure you are not substituting social distancing for face masks,” Adams said. “The most important thing is still to stay away from people.”

Everyone is asked to start wearing cloth 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.

But, health officials stress that these are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by current CDC guidance.

They are asking everyone to start wearing homemade cloth masks.

“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure,” the CDC said in a press release. “Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.”

Cloth face coverings should:

• fit snugly but comfortably against the side of the face

• be secured with ties or ear loops

• include multiple layers of fabric

• allow for breathing without restriction

• be able to be laundered and machine dried without damage or change to shape

• should cover both your nose and mouth at all times

• should be washed in a washing machine regularly after use

• wearer should avoid touching their eyes, nose, and mouth when removing their face covering and wash their hands immediately after removal

Cloth face coverings should not be placed on young children under the age of two, anyone who has trouble breathing, or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the mask without assistance.

The CDC has released tips for making masks at home, both for those proficient with at sewing, and those who would be better off going another route.

Contact Matt Hughes at matt@journalenterprise.com or 270-667-2069