The World Health Organization has changed its guidance on face coverings and is now encouraging people to wear them when they can’t socially distance.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus made the announcement on Friday and said that the change in guidance was prompted by recent studies on the effectiveness of face coverings during the coronavirus pandemic.
Tedros said that “in light of evolving evidence, the WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops, or in other confined or crowded environments,” according to the BBC.
The change is an about-face for the global health body, which had previously said face coverings and masks give healthy people a false sense of security and could create shortages for medical workers who need them. The WHO had previously recommended masks only for those who had contracted COVID-19 and those caring for them.
Maria Van Kerkhove, the technical lead during the WHO’s coronavirus response, told Reuters that people should wear non-medical fabric masks with “at least three layers of different material” in order to be effective. She said those over the age of 60 or with other health conditions are advised to wear medical masks in places where community transmission is present.
The new WHO guidance comes weeks after the United States and other countries already recommended people to wear face coverings when in public areas to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
More than 6.8 million people worldwide have tested positive for the coronavirus, and almost 400,000 people have died from the respiratory illness since it first emerged in central China late last year.