Israel’s recommendation to wear face masks will become compulsory as of Sunday, following a new Health Ministry directive approved by the government.
Under the new rules, masks must be worn when leaving home. Exceptions will be made for children under age 6; people with emotional, mental or medical conditions that would prevent them from wearing a mask; drivers in their cars; people alone in a building; and two workers who work regularly together, provided they maintain social distancing.
Acknowledging a shortage of masks, the authorities said they can be homemade or makeshift, but should cover the mouth and nose.
“A face mask greatly reduces the likelihood of being infected and infecting others,” the Health Ministry said, adding that it blocks respiratory droplets.
However, health experts are not in agreement on the proper role of masks in the pandemic.
The World Health Organization said in its updated guidelines on Monday that a review of data found no evidence that wearing a mask in public prevents healthy people from picking up COVID-19.
There was, however, some evidence that it could help prevent sick people from spreading the disease, although it stressed that “a mask alone is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection, and other measures should also be adopted,” such as hand-washing and social distancing.
Prof. David Heymann, of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, who has been working with the WHO, was quoted by the U.K.’s Guardian as saying that except for medical personnel, masks are “only for the protection of others, not for the protection of oneself.”
“The use of masks made of other materials (e.g., cotton fabric), also known as nonmedical masks, in the community setting has not been well evaluated. There is no current evidence to make a recommendation for or against their use in this setting,” the WHO said in its update.
The agency advised that it would be better to reserve medical masks for health-care professionals and cautioned against a false sense of security generated by mask-wearers. Those with coronavirus symptoms should wear a face mask, the WHO stipulated, while those caring for them should wear a face mask when they are in the same room.
Health officials in the U.S. are taking a position similar to the Israelis, encouraging their use in the general population. The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies), especially in areas of significant community-based transmission.”
But, like the WHO, the CDC on its website explained that “the cloth face cover is meant to protect other people in case you are infected.”
At this stage of the pandemic, medical authorities can offer no certainties, and are still in an information-gathering phase, at least as far as masks are concerned.
Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus acknowledged at a press briefing that “what is clear is that there is limited research in this area. We encourage countries that are considering the use of masks for the general population to study their effectiveness so we can all learn.”
Updated Tuesday, April 7, 2020 at 3:36 pm .