The EU’s lead agency managing Europe’s response to Covid-19 has said people should consider wearing non-medical face masks in public.
The latest advice comes as the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control’s (ECDC) counterpart in the US said the same earlier this week.
Both lead agencies are following on from a “conditional” World Health Organisation recommendation that face masks could be used by asymptomatic individuals in severe pandemics in order to reduce transmission in the community.
However, the advice comes with a large amount of caution and reservation because the ECDC states there is no evidence that wearing a mask is of a benefit to people who are not unwell.
“Based on the lack of evidence, it has so far not been recommended that people who are not ill or who are not providing care to a patient should wear a mask to reduce influenza or Covid-19 transmission,” the ECDC says.
“It should be noted that all relevant evidence comes from studies (on mask use) on influenza and other coronaviruses and may not be directly applicable to Covid-19.
And it states: “Available evidence suggests non-medical face masks are less effective than medical masks as a means for source control.
“There are no established standards for a self-made non-medical face mask.”
Despite its reservations, the ECDC says the use of face masks in public “may . . . reduce the spread of the infection” in the community.
This is because, they say, masks minimize the excretion of respiratory droplets from infected individuals who have not yet developed symptoms or who remain asymptomatic.
However, the agency says it is not known how much the use of masks in the community can contribute to a decrease in transmission in addition to the other countermeasures.
It said: “The use of face masks in the community could be considered, especially when visiting busy, closed spaces, such as grocery stores, shopping centres, or when using public transport.
“The use of non-medical face masks made of various textiles could be considered, especially if – due to supply problems – medical face masks must be prioritised for use as personal protective equipment by healthcare workers.
“This is based on limited indirect evidence supporting the use of non-medical face masks as a means of source control.
“The use of face masks in the community should be considered only as a complementary measure and not as a replacement for established preventive measures.
“Appropriate use of face masks is key for the effectiveness of the measure and can be improved through education campaigns.
Earlier this week, America’s Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommended people should wear cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.
“CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others.
“Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.”
They fall short of recommending the use of surgical or N-95 masks because these are critical supplies that should be reserved for healthcare workers.