Doctors say healthy people generally do not need to wear...

Doctors say healthy people generally do not need to wear face masks as protection against coronavirus. Credit: Newsday/John Paraskevas

Update: After this article was written on March 29, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended on April 3 that Americans should wear face coverings when in public, a reversal from the prior government position that doing so is ineffective. The latest studies show widespread use of masks could help prevent many people from getting COVID-19. For more news and information on coronavirus, check our continually updated FAQ page.

Infectious disease experts on Sunday largely said healthy people do not need to wear face masks to protect themselves against the coronavirus, even as the number of new cases continues to surge on Long Island and elsewhere.

While one infectious disease specialist interviewed said a mask might be appropriate in high-density areas with many cases, they generally will be of little value to someone walking their dog or driving alone in their car, doctors said.

But that has not stopped people from clearing the shelves of mask retailers, creating shortages for health care workers who need such equipment the most, as fears over the pandemic boil over.

Officials on Sunday reported more than 11,000 cases of COVID-19 in Nassau and Suffolk counties and more than 59,000 cases statewide.

Still, public health experts continue to advise that most do not need to wear masks when going about their daily lives.

The World Health Organization says only people who are coughing or sneezing, or caring for a person suspected of having COVID-19, should wear masks.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers similar recommendations on its website and highlights instead the value of "everyday preventive actions" such as frequent hand-washing and refraining from touching your face.

The CDC also notes that the loosefitting masks now commonly seen in public are not especially useful.

"Most face masks do not effectively filter small particles from the air and do not prevent leakage around the edge of the mask when the user inhales," the website reads.

Aaron E. Glatt, chief of infectious diseases at Mount Sinai South Nassau Hospital in Oceanside, echoed the CDC's recommendations in an interview on Sunday and said there is a cost associated with healthy people buying up masks that could be going to health care workers instead.

"The people who must wear a mask are physicians, nurses, respiratory therapists that go into the rooms with patients. They're putting their life on the line and they must have that personal protective equipment," he said. By contrast, healthy people wearing such gear for a walk around the block "are wasting a mask," he said.

Sharon Nachman, division chief for pediatric infectious diseases at Stony Brook Children's Hospital, said masks give people an "incredibly false sense of security." 

She said, however, there are certain scenarios in which covering one's face might be prudent, such as an elderly or less healthy person going grocery shopping.

Bruce Farber, the head of infectious diseases for Northwell Health, said it might be reasonable to wear a mask in places with high population density and a large number of coronavirus cases. But he said most people who contract the virus have had sustained exposure to an infected person.

As for whether masks will become a regular feature of everyday outerwear in the United States, as it is in some East Asian countries, once the pandemic has passed, Farber said such a development would have little public health value.

"In an outbreak situation, it makes some sense," he said. "In the long haul, no. I'm not going to be wearing a mask for the rest of my life once this is over."

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