As of Friday afternoon, the answer to that question is, "yes." During his daily briefing, President Donald Trump said new guidance from the Centers for Disease and Prevention urges Americans to wear cloth face coverings in public to prevent the spread of the virus.
"The CDC is advising the use of nonmedical cloth face covering as a voluntary health measure," Trump said. "It is voluntary. They suggested for a period of time. This is voluntary.”
“The CDC is not recommending the use of medical grade or surgical grade masks," he added, noting things such as the N95 respirators need to be saved for medical professionals.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, a key member of the White House coronavirus task force, reinforced that recommendation during an appearance on CNN Thursday night.
"Given the fact that we know that asymptomatic people are clearly transmitting infection, it just makes common sense that it's not a bad idea to do that," he said about wearing masks.
Dr. Joseph Fair, a virologist and NBC News contributor, took Fauci's statement a step further on TODAY Friday by saying that there should be a mandatory, nationwide order for people to wear masks in public.
The mask helps prevent asymptomatic carriers of coronavirus from transmitting it to others, based on data from studies in China, Iceland and the U.S., according to Fair.
"Having a mask on physically keeps those droplets from coming out of your mouth and on to someone else," he told Savannah Guthrie. "I should emphasize that a mask doesn't mean you shouldn't social distance because if you're doing the proper social distancing, it's still not a problem, but we know not everybody's doing that."
Fair also believes a mandatory order to wear them is needed rather than just a recommendation.
"To be honest, if we know that 25% or 50% of infections are silent or asymptomatic, I think just like lockdown there should be a nationwide mandate that we all start doing it,'' he said.
Fair added that handkerchiefs or "anything you can tie around your face" can serve as a sufficient mask. He also stressed they should particularly be worn in places like grocery stores and pharmacies where people need to go and often will be around other people.
The mayors of Los Angeles and New York City, where cases of coronavirus continue to rise sharply, have already recommended that people should wear masks, and members of the Los Angeles Police Department are wearing them while on patrol.
Since the beginning of the outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had recommended that people in the general public should not be wearing masks.
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The CDC said earlier this week that it has not made any changes to its guidelines, which state that people should only wear face masks if they are sick or caring for others who are sick.
However, CDC director Dr. Robert Redfield told NPR on Monday that the agency was studying data to see whether it will change its stance on masks being worn in public.
"Particularly with the new data, that there's significant asymptomatic transmission, this is being critically re-reviewed to see if there's potential additional value for individuals that are infected or individuals that may be asymptomatically infected," he said. "Obviously you can see the complexity of that, if you assume that 25% are asymptomatic, the only way you would do it — if you then sort of went into areas that were high transmission zones and had a significant (proportion of) individuals then wearing masks, assuming that they were infected. I can tell you that the data and this issue of whether it's going to contribute (to prevention) is being aggressively reviewed as we speak."
NBC News medical correspondent Dr. John Torres noted on TODAY Tuesday that masks are not a cure-all in themselves.
"A lot of experts are saying it might help out a little bit, why don't we wear them,'' Torres said. "The truth is it actually might help out a little bit, but here's the caveats behind that.
"People have to wear them constantly, they have to wear them correctly, and they always forget, too, that their eyes are another way the virus can get in. So without eye shields, they're not getting all the protection they need to get."
Wearing masks could also make people overconfident against the spread of the illness, according to Torres.
"It might give them a false sense of security so they might get inside that 6-foot bubble that we're putting around ourselves to keep away from the virus,'' he said. "If they do, and somebody coughs or sneezes, they're still vulnerable to it."
Torres also echoed the CDC in saying that another primary reason people shouldn't wear masks, like the N95 mask, is because they are desperately needed by health care workers on the front lines treating patients with COVID-19.
Many stores sold out of the masks while the coronavirus was still only being detected in China, while health care workers have been pleading for more masks and other protective gear at hospitals around the country that have been overwhelmed with patients.
"As to whether it'll help out or not, is the CDC going to change its guidance and say so? Right now they're saying no," Torres said. "Could it potentially help? It could, but it's not gonna give you full protection. It's not gonna give any more protection than washing your hands and definitely keeping that 6-foot distance."
Around the rest of the world, guidelines about wearing masks have varied. The governments of the Czech Republic and Slovakia are the only countries in Europe to have mandated that people wear masks in public, while Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz said at a news conference Monday that masks will distributed outside grocery stores to any customers entering.
This article was originally published March 31, 2020.