We asked 15 public health experts if homemade masks are a good idea to limit the spread of the coronavirus, and the results are mixed

Crystal Cox/Business Insider
  • Face masks are being touted as a way to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus.
  • But not all experts agree that they're an effective way to keep people healthy right now.
  • Business Insider surveyed more than a dozen leading public health experts on the topic, and while most said you should wear a mask or face covering in places where social distancing isn't possible, the vote was not unanimous.
  • Visit Business Insider's homepage for more stories.

As the novel coronavirus continues to travel the world, more people are getting comfortable putting on facemasks in public, whether their coverings are homemade or pro-grade.

Face coverings are becoming a mandatory piece of clothing, near as requisite as shoes and a shirt, in stores, factories, and other enclosed spaces from New York to Berlin and Indiana.

The strategy — which is premised on the idea that people may be unknowingly transmitting the novel coronavirus to others through their spit, speech, and coughs — isn't one that scientists have had enough time to test. Advertisement

As a group of leading US scientists and doctors laid out recently in a rapid report sent to the President's office of science and technology policy, "the available evidence is inconclusive about the degree to which homemade fabric masks may suppress spread of infection from the wearer to others."

Still, some public health pros say, why not try it out?

"The argument ... is not that it will prevent everyone from getting infected, it's that it will slow down transmission in the community a bit," Ben Cowling, a professor of epidemiology and a mask researcher at the University of Hong Kong's School of Public Health, recently told Business Insider. "And that's already useful."
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So we asked Cowling, along with more than a dozen other leading public health experts:

Given the evidence, would you recommend everyone wear homemade face masks right now to help limit the spread of the coronavirus outside hospitals and homes?

Business Insider received responses to the emailed poll from 14 experts, and also incorporated the stance of former US Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb, based on the nonmedical facemask recommendation in his proposed US reopening plan. Here are the results: Advertisement

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The overwhelming majority of respondents to the poll voted yes, but many were less than emphatic about it.

"Homemade face masks can help prevent the inhalation of droplets in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain," Jay Bhatt, Chief Medical Officer at the American Hospital Association said, stressing, like others did, that distance is still the best virus defense.Advertisement

Others, like nurse Christopher Friese, pointed out that "homemade masks confer no protection to the wearer."

"The key to managing this pandemic is staying home, staying six feet apart when outside the home for urgent business, and meticulous handwashing for 20 seconds," Friese said.

But, "if you have to go to some crowded places where social distancing is unlikely, a surgical mask is better (if available), and a homemade one is better than nothing, especially for vulnerable people," Elaine Shuo Feng at the Oxford Vaccine Group said. Advertisement

Robert Beardall, the lone "no" vote in the poll, is an American physician working abroad in Italy right now, and studying how the coronavirus spreads.

He worries that homemade masks will be wholly ineffective, creating a false sense of security for people who wear them. In places (like hospitals) where the air is thick with virus, he said "real antiviral masks are needed."

Until a vaccine or treatment for the coronavirus is available, all the experts agree we should avoid crowded, poorly ventilated spaces, wash our hands often, and keep away from others when we feel sick.Advertisement

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