There has been a lot of confusion surrounding the idea of wearing a mask to protect against the coronavirus when away from home, and authorities have done little in the way of clearing it up during this pandemic.
The original statement from the US Surgeon General in late February was demanding that people stop purchasing masks. He tweeted that they "are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!"
Hindsight, it is unclear whether this statement was made because authorities really felt that masks would not be effective to the average person, or if it was a hackneyed strategy in keeping people from getting their hands on protective gear that was already alarmingly sparse, and thus needed to be saved for healthcare workers.
But then on April 3, less than a month after the Surgeon General said masks are not effective against the spread of the disease, the CDC updated their protocols and featured a video of the Surgeon General giving a quick tutorial on how to make an at-home face covering if one does not have access to a mask. The CDC still maintained that surgical masks and N-95 gear still be reserved for healthcare personnel.
The same happened in Canada, where Theresa Tam, chief public health officer, said at the end of March that masks were ineffective for those who did not show any symptoms, saying that "putting a mask on an asymptomatic person is not beneficial, obviously if you're not infected."
But on Wednesday during a daily briefing to Canadians regarding the COVID-19 pandemic, Tam suggested wearing masks, saying it "will help us reopen and add another layer to how you go out safely."
President Donald Trump mentioned in early April that wearing masks would be optional, but said he would not personally be wearing one—a decision that has been criticized by many.
It appears that the general consensus has finally come around that wearing any kind of protective covering is better than nothing. And while wearing a mask is not itself a guarantee against contracting the virus, it could play a pivotal role.
Recent reports have come out that the virus is rarely spread by touching surfaces, which prompted social psychologist Jonathan Haidt to tweet, "Confirmation from the CDC: COVID is rarely spread by touch/surfaces/fomites... It's droplets and lungs. So maybe we can double down on masks, and lighten up on spraying?"
But a wrench has been thrown into the mix, with those who may not be able to sufficiently wear a mask for one reason or other, such as those with asthma or other disabilities.
Tam said: “Be very aware of those with different types of cognitive, intellectual disabilities, those who are hearing impaired and others."
“Don’t assume that someone who isn’t wearing a mask or is wearing something different doesn’t have an actual reason for it.”
Asthma Canada president and CEO Vanessa Foran mentioned that wearing a mask could put asthmatics at risk of having an attack. She went on to say that any device or object that hinders someone to breathe should not be required.
“Wearing masks means breathing hot and humid air, so that can trigger asthma symptoms,” she said.
“We say if they cannot wear a mask, they must ensure they’re maintaining physical distancing and practicing good hand hygiene.”
While there is no clear-cut answer on the subject of masks, it appears that if someone is able to wear one without coming under medically-related distress, then it is encouraged they do so when around others.