WHO encourages use of face coverings to stem spread of COVID-19

WHO encourages use of face coverings to stem spread of COVID-19
© Getty Images

The World Health Organization (WHO) on Friday endorsed the use of face coverings among the general public in an attempt to slow the spread of COVID-19, after many countries have already encouraged their citizens to wear them.

WHO previously only recommended masks for people who are sick or caring for someone who is ill. 

In updated guidance released Friday, WHO stated that governments in countries with widespread transmission of COVID-19 should urge their citizens to wear nonmedical face masks in public settings, especially in areas where physical distancing is difficult, like in grocery stores and other crowded spaces.


The international health body recommends face coverings have a minimum of three layers. 

The change from WHO comes after many other countries, including the U.S., have encouraged their citizens to wear face coverings in public. The WHO guidance states the widespread use of masks by healthy people is not yet supported by science, but that growing evidence suggests it could be beneficial, especially as studies show people can spread COVID-19 before they're symptomatic.

WHO also recommended medical masks be worn by people age 60 and older and people with underlying health conditions such as lung or heart disease or cancer, as well as health workers.

Because there is a global shortage of medical masks, WHO doesn't recommend their use for any other population.

However, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) only recommends the use of face coverings for the general public because of the shortages, even for the elderly and those with underlying health conditions.

WHO stressed that face coverings are not a replacement for critical measures like avoiding groups of people and crowded spaces, keeping a distance from others of at least three feet (the CDC advises at least six feet), and hand-washing.