Should Everyone Wear Masks as Coronavirus Cases Spread? Here's What Officials Say

Changing guidance has led to renewed questions on the topic, as scientists say more evidence indicates the virus could be spread by asymptomatic people

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Should you be wearing a mask if you leave the house during the coronavirus pandemic?

Changing guidance has led to renewed questions on the topic, as scientists say more evidence indicates the virus could be spread by asymptomatic people.

Illinois officials say they are reviewing whether or not they plan to issue new guidance surrounding face coverings for all residents.

"I would not discourage people from wearing masks," Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker said Wednesday. "In fact I think that there's some evidence to show that they can be effective. We are constantly looking at things like whether you should wear masks, whether gloves are effective, how often you should be wiping down surfaces in your own home..."

Both Pritzker and Illinois Department of Public Health Director Dr. Ngozi Ezike said they wouldn't advocate against residents wearing masks "but it does not replace staying at home."

"Not one practice alone will do it," Ezike said. "We need the full cache of all these practices. Everything will be additive, cumulative to decreasing the spread and flattening the curve."

Pritzker said the state is largely looking to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for guidance on the matter.

Information on how coronavirus infections spread and recommendations for preventing them have changed since the virus' introduction in the U.S. In the initial months of the pandemic, health officials based their response on the belief that most of the spread came from people who were sneezing or coughing droplets that contained the virus.

The federal government recently issued new guidance warning that anyone exposed to the disease can be considered a carrier.

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield said the agency is reviewing its guidance, looking at research in Singapore, China and other places to determine if a universal mask recommendation is required.

The CDC also quietly updated its guidance in recent weeks, saying hospitals that run low on N95 or surgical masks should consider ways to reuse them or to use them through an entire shift. And if hospitals run out, the CDC said, scarfs or bandanas could be used ”as a last resort,” though some health officials warned cloth masks might not work.

Overall, health officials say masks are less about protecting the person wearing them and more about preventing someone from spreading the virus.

"When we say cover your cough the point of covering your cough is that you're not letting those droplets go on to the person in front of you," Ezike said. "Essentially, similar to the advice of wearing a mask."

In Chicago and across the state, health officials already recommend all healthcare workers caring for vulnerable populations in long-term care facility settings "wear masks at all times," Chicago Department of Public Health Commissioner Allison Arwady said Wednesday.

Still, officials cautioned that wearing a mask doesn't make it safe to leave your home.

"I don't want people to think the mask makes them invincible because it doesn't," Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot said. "While the guidance may be updated, and we'll certainly let the public know if that's the direction things go... I don't want people to be misled."

Illinois has so far reported nearly 7,000 confirmed cases statewide with more than 140 deaths - numbers health experts say are certain to rise.

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