CDC says we all should wear face coverings to avoid spreading coronavirus

But medical-grade N95 masks, which are in short supply, should be reserved for health workers. And don't stop social distancing or hand washing.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
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A woman sewing handmade face masks in Spain last month. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that people in the states wear nonmedical, cloth face masks when they leave home. But medical-grade masks, like N95 respirators, shoul

A woman sewing handmade face masks in Spain last month. The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention now recommends that people in the states wear nonmedical, cloth face masks when they leave home. But medical-grade masks, like N95 respirators, should be left for health workers, who face much greater risk of exposure.

Cesar Manso/Getty Images

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Friday shifted course on its guidance for masks, saying all Americans should wear a cloth face covering when out in public to avoid spreading the coronavirus. But medical masks, including surgical masks and N95 masks, should still be reserved for health care workers. And the recommendation to wear a mask isn't mandatory.

According to the CDC's new guidelines, members of the general public should wear cloth masks outside their homes, whether or not they're sick. They can be washed and reused. Some infected people don't have symptoms and can unknowingly spread the virus to others; homemade and other cloth face coverings can help prevent that. At the same time, people wearing cloth masks should take the same precautions as before, including social distancing and hand washing. 

Previously, the CDC said members of the general public didn't need to wear face masks unless they were sick or caring for someone who was ill. 

The new CDC guidelines don't mean you should rush to find an N95 mask -- those medical-grade masks are in short supply and are needed by health workers on the front lines of the pandemic. Instead, people should use other cloth masks or homemade face coverings. For a homemade mask, some health centers have recommended using four layers of fabric to better block out particulates. You can click the links in this sentence for more information on homemade face masks and how they differ from N95 masks

Even if you're wearing a face covering, though, you should exercise the same caution as if you weren't wearing one: Stay at least 6 feet away from other people, avoid group gatherings, go outside only for exercise and essential errands, and wash your hands when you return home. 

At the daily White House briefing on Thursday, Deborah Birx, a doctor advising the administration during the COVID-19 pandemic, said the government delayed recommending that everyone wear face coverings because of worries that people would feel "a false sense of security that that mask is protecting you exclusively from getting infected." Wearing a mask isn't a guarantee that you'll be protected, and Birx said she wants everyone to understand that wearing a face covering isn't a substitute for social distancing and other previously issued guidelines.

Watch this: Studies test wearables as early coronavirus detection tools

Amazon on Thursday restricted the sale of N95 face masks, gloves and antibacterial wipes to the general public. During the pandemic, the e-commerce giant will make the hard-to-find health care products available only to governments and health providers. In early March, eBay banned some listings of N95 masks and hand sanitizer to prevent price gouging. 

The new coronavirus was first detected late last year in the Chinese city of Wuhan. It causes a respiratory illness known as COVID-19 and has been linked to other coronaviruses, such as SARS and MERS. In March, the World Health Organization declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic. The crisis has caused cities and entire countries around the globe to issue lockdowns, leading to shuttered stores, canceled events and the need for people to stay at home to help contain the virus' spread. As of Friday, more than 1 million people worldwide have been infected and over 58,000 have died.

Fighting coronavirus: COVID-19 tests, vaccine research, masks, ventilators and more

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The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health objectives.