Story at a glance

  • The new guidance recommends the general public wear non-medical cloth masks in places such as public transport, in shops or in confined crowded environments.
  • It also says those over 60 or with underlying conditions should wear medical masks in areas where there’s community transmission of the coronavirus and physical distancing is impossible.
  • The United Nations public health agency previously recommended in early April only healthcare workers, those infected with the coronavirus and their caregivers should wear medical masks.

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday changed course on its recommendations for the use of masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, advising that in areas where the virus is spreading, people should wear fabric masks in public when they are unable to practice social distancing. 

“WHO has developed this [mask] guidance through a careful review of all available evidence, and extensive consultation with international experts and civil society groups,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said during a news conference Friday. 


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“I wish to be very clear that the guidance we are publishing today is an update of what we have been saying for months: that masks should only ever be used as part of a comprehensive strategy. Masks on their own will not protect you from COVID-19,” Tedros said, emphasising the importance of hand-washing, social distancing and other infection-prevention strategies. 

The new guidance recommends the general public wear non-medical cloth masks in places such as public transport, in shops or in confined crowded environments. It also says those over 60 or with underlying conditions should wear medical masks in areas where there’s community transmission of the coronavirus and physical distancing is impossible. WHO also widened the mask guidance to recommend health workers in areas where the virus is spreading freely should always wear medical masks inside medical facilities. 

The United Nations public health agency previously recommended in early April only healthcare workers, those infected with the coronavirus and their caregivers should wear medical masks. WHO at the time said the use of medical masks among the general public could create a false sense of security and cause people to ignore social distancing measures and hygiene practices. The agency said another concern was people may contaminate themselves by touching their face more frequently when they adjust, remove and dispose of their masks. Medical mask supplies were also needed by medical professionals overwhelmed by the coronavirus pandemic. 

“There is currently no evidence that wearing a mask (whether medical or other types) by healthy persons in the wider community setting, including universal community masking, can prevent them from infection with respiratory viruses, including COVID-19,” WHO’s early April recommendation stated. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued guidance in April recommending people wear homemade masks or face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain. It was a reversal for the agency that said at the beginning of the outbreak healthy people did not need to wear masks because it would not protect them from contracting the disease. 

Research indicates people can have the virus, show no symptoms and unknowingly pass it to others. The CDC says wearing face coverings could prevent that, ultimately slowing the spread of the coronavirus. 

WHO infection control expert April Baller said the reason for widening the guidance on face masks was the increasing evidence COVID-19 can be spread by people before they have symptoms, according to NBC News

“What (the masks) do is they prevent a person who may actually have the disease from transmitting it to somebody else,” Baller said according to NBC News. 


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This article was updated 06/09/2020 to include changes made to the World Health Organization's guidance on face masks. 

Published on Apr 08, 2020