The Atlantic Daily: The Debate Over Masks

Should you wear a face mask in public? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is reportedly considering new guidelines. In the background, a scientific debate rages on.

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In the beginning, the guidance was clear: Unless you have COVID-19 or are caring for someone who does, you probably don’t need to wear a mask in public. Now, that’s all in flux. The CDC is expected to retool said guidelines, advising Americans to wear cloth masks in public, perhaps as soon as tonight.

Here’s what our science writer Ed Yong reported about the efficacy of such masks yesterday:

A few studies suggest that homemade cloth masks are less effective than proper medical ones, but are still better than nothing. In one experiment, a surgical mask filtered 89 percent of viral particles from volunteers’ coughs, a tea towel blocked 72 percent, and a cotton T-shirt blocked 50 percent. … If people use makeshift masks, they should thoroughly wash them afterward. And most of all, they should remember that homemade masks are not fully protective.

Underpinning the mask debate is another about how this new coronavirus travels—specifically, whether it is airborne. (Airborne, in the public health sense, doesn’t just mean “travels by air;” it refers to a specific state, in which the virus moves as "aerosols.") Early studies offer preliminary answers, but many questions remain.

“We’re trying to build the plane while we’re flying it,” one expert told Ed. “We’re having to make decisions with quite massive consequences in the absence of secure data. It’s a nightmare for your average cautious public-health professional.”


Today’s coronavirus update in three sentences:

Another week of high joblessness claims shows an economy still reeling. More young people in the South seem to be dying from COVID-19. And the natural world is feeling the effects of this global shutdown.

What to read if … you just want practical advice:

One question, answered: How can we explain to a 4-year-old why she can’t see her friends or go to school?

When discussing social distancing with young children, Andrea Delbanco, the editor in chief of Time for Kids, recommends that parents explain how to flatten the curve using age-appropriate language. “Ask your child to imagine that everyone in your family got the flu. If everyone felt sick at the same time, you could not care for one another. But if you took turns getting sick, someone could always be healthy enough to help,” Delbanco tells The Atlantic’s Ashley Fetters.

Delbanco also recommends parents answer questions about the pandemic as truthfully as possible. “Don’t make reassurances or promises you can’t keep. That might calm them in the short term,” Delbanco says, “but in the long run, it’s important that they trust you to be honest with them.”

Today’s Atlantic-approved self-quarantine activity:

“If you’re bored, and within reach of a laptop or phone, here’s a suggestion: Go to YouTube, type in ‘BTS,’ click on a random video, and let yourself fall down the rabbit hole. By this point, you’ve probably heard of the seven-member South Korean pop group; they’re the biggest band in the world. You don’t need to speak Korean or be into ‘boy bands’ or even mainstream music in general to appreciate BTS—their stage presence, genre-bending music, sense of humor, commitment to social issues, and stunning choreography will likely win you over.”
— Lenika Cruz, senior associate editor

What to read if … you’d like to read about something—anything—other than the coronavirus:

Wikipedia’s legion of volunteer editors are notoriously fastidious and overwhelmingly secretive. Here’s a map of where they all are—and what that might mean about the site.

We are continuing our coverage of the coronavirus. View all of our stories related to the outbreak here. Let us know if you have specific questions about the virus—or if you have a personal experience you’d like to share with us.

Are you applying for an emergency small-business loan? We’d like to hear about your experience. Include your name and the name, size, and location of your enterprise.

This email was written by Caroline Mimbs Nyce, with help from Haley Weiss and Lora Strum, and edited by Shan Wang. Sign yourself up for The Daily here