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Opinion Let health workers have the medical gear. But we should all start covering our faces.

N95 particulate respirator masks and procedure face masks at a surgical supply facility in Lakewood, N.J.
N95 particulate respirator masks and procedure face masks at a surgical supply facility in Lakewood, N.J. (Victor J. Blue/Bloomberg)
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EARLY IN the coronavirus crisis, many public health officials insisted that masks could not protect the public from covid-19. But that thinking is increasingly in question. People should be encouraged to cover their faces — responsibly.

To be clear: No one should hoard equipment that health-care workers need, particularly N95 masks that protect them from fine aerosol particles their patients exhale. Doctors and nurses who must interact closely with sick people need that gear. Even standard surgical masks — the square ones with loops that hook around one’s ears — should be reserved for those on the front lines until production ramps up. The government should ensure that supply meets demand soon and that resources go where they are most needed in the meantime.

Full coverage of the coronavirus pandemic

Everyone else should turn to alternatives until there are medical-grade masks to spare. There is too little evidence available to draw firm conclusions, but, in its absence, it makes intuitive sense that some barrier — even if it is cloth or paper — between one’s airways and the outside world is better than none. Officials in other nations concluded this long ago, and U.S. public health experts are coming around to this position. While homemade and even surgical masks are far from impermeable, an incremental reduction in risk would still be an improvement. Cutting the rate of transmission even a bit would help flatten the infection curve.

According to the CDC and World Health Organization, only the sick, and their caretakers, should wear face masks. Research scientist Jeremy Howard disagrees. (Video: The Washington Post)

If mask-wearing became the norm, the likeliest benefit would be to prevent infected people who don’t yet have symptoms or know they’re sick from spreading the virus via droplets exiting their respiratory tracts. And there appear to be many asymptomatic carriers of the coronavirus.

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Even if more people wear masks, it will be crucial for everyone to continue washing their hands, staying home as much as possible, cleansing frequently touched surfaces and refraining from touching their faces. These things all work far better in concert. Mask-wearers should remove their facial gear carefully, without touching the outward-facing portion, and masks should be replaced or washed frequently. Mask-wearing also could encourage people to remember to keep their hands away from their faces.

Until we get a therapy or vaccine for covid-19, the best strategy is to reduce risk. As long as people do not hoard medical supplies or slack off on social distancing, having everyone cover their faces would probably depress risk at least a little bit, and at little cost. It is worth trying.

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