US health authorities are debating whether to recommend face coverings for everyone when they go out in public.
One internal memo for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says that even simple cloth masks could help reduce the risk of virus transmission, the Washington Post reports.
President Donald Trump has suggested that individuals could “use a scarf”.
Current guidelines say that masks only need to be worn by healthcare workers, the sick, and those caring for them.
There is currently a shortage of N95 and surgical masks in the US, with healthcare workers saying they have been told to reuse masks several times, or use bandanas when masks are not available.
There have been over 190,000 cases of coronavirus in the US, with about 4,000 deaths.
How could the US advice on face masks change?
The Washington Post obtained memos from the CDC, which said that cloth masks could help prevent the spread of the virus if people wore them in public, even during simple tasks like visiting the supermarket.
The advice is being shared with the White House coronavirus task force for their consideration, the Washington Post reports.
While there has been no change to the official guidance yet, there has been a clear change in tone from officials over the last few days.
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Back in February, Surgeon General Jerome Adams had tweeted: “STOP BUYING MASKS! 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!”
He also said in an interview that individuals could “increase [their] risk of getting” the virus by wearing a mask, because “folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot”.
However, on Wednesday, Dr Adams told Good Morning America that the CDC had been asked to review its guidelines on masks, because “we’ve learned there’s a fair amount of asymptomatic spread” – although he stressed that medical-grade masks should still be left to health care professionals who needed them most.
Similarly, on Tuesday, the US’s top infectious diseases expert, Anthony Fauci, said the White House coronavirus task force was actively discussing whether to recommend a wider use of masks,
Dr Fauci told CNN he would “lean towards” recommending a “much more broad, community-wide use of masks outside of the health care setting” once there was a sufficient supply of masks for healthcare workers.
Health experts say that masks can primarily help by preventing asymptomatic patients – people who have been infected with Covid-19 but are not aware, and not displaying any symptoms – from unknowingly spreading the virus to others.
Masks could also help lower the risk of individuals catching the virus through the droplets from another person’s sneeze or a cough.
However, experts have stressed that it is vital to maintain social distancing measures and thorough hand washing, even when wearing a mask.