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At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, U.S. health authorities discouraged healthy individuals from wearing masks in public, saying they were likely to do more harm than good. But now, new research on how the virus spreads has inspired a change in recommendations.

Recent studies show a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus are asymptomatic and that those who will eventually develop symptoms can transmit the virus to others. This means that the virus can spread from person to person in close proximity, even if those individuals are not exhibiting symptoms. Because of this, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where social distancing measures are difficult to maintain, such as grocery stores or pharmacies.

“We are learning a lot about this virus every day and what we are saying now may be different than a few weeks ago. It’s not because we don’t know what we are talking about, it’s because this is uncharted territory and we are reacting to new scientific information,” said Dr. John Greene, chair of the Infectious Diseases Department at Moffitt Cancer Center.

Dr. John Greene, chair of Infectious Disease Department

Dr. John Greene, chair of Infectious Disease Department

Most research shows the virus spreads airborne in droplets that can travel 6 feet. There is some evidence it can spread as an aerosol up to 27 feet and suspend in the air for over three hours. Infection can also occur from touching a contaminated surface and then touching your face, mouth, nose or eyes.

“Somebody wearing a mask is going to be talking, breathing, coughing and sneezing into the mask, so the droplets are going to be less likely to float in the air,” said Greene. “Wearing a mask protects you from infecting someone else.”

However, if you are wearing a mask, Greene says it’s important to limit touching it.  

“Every hour we touch our face about 30 times, a lot of those times subconsciously,” he said. “If you wear a mask all day, you touch it a million times to adjust it, handle it, put it in your pocket, potentially putting more virus on yourself.”

The CDC is emphasizing the use of cloth face coverings as a voluntary health measure. They can be fashioned from household items or made from low cost materials. They are not surgical masks or N95 respirators, which are critical supplies that should be reserved for health care workers and medical first responders.

Even if you choose to wear a cloth mask in public, you should still practice good hand hygiene and social distancing.

“If you want to reduce your chances of catching the virus as much as possible, you would wash your hands frequently, social distance and if you have to go into a public area where you are going to be less than 6 feet from others, wear a mask,” said Greene.