In the past couple of days, a tweet from the US Surgeon General admonishing people for panic-buying face masks has gone viral. The tweet echoes guidance issued by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) that only people showing symptoms of the coronavirus should wear face masks, in part to ensure there is a sufficient supply for healthcare professionals.
But while the CDC and the surgeon general are performing an admirable task in trying to dampen panic about the virus and counter misinformation, some of their statements are being taken out of context and turned into just that. People who dislike or disapprove of wearing face masks have used it to argue against doing so, even in places that recommend wearing them.
Just because guidance is issued by US authorities for Americans (or in Italy for Italians, or in the UK for Britons, etc) doesn't mean it necessarily applies to the whole world.
In Asia, for example, where face masks have been a common sight for weeks, multiple health authorities and experts have recommended their use by people not showing symptoms. Here's the Hong Kong guidance:
Surgical mask can prevent transmission of respiratory viruses from ill persons. It is essential for persons who are symptomatic (even if having mild symptoms) to wear a surgical mask.
Wear a surgical mask when taking public transport or staying in crowded places. It is important to wear a mask properly, including hand hygiene before wearing and after removing a mask.
Asian metropolises like Hong Kong are far denser, and have far busier public transport, than most cities in the US. There is also evidence of community transmission in Hong Kong, and many neighboring countries, which raises the risks posed to otherwise healthy people of being coughed or sneezed upon by someone with the virus -- something a face mask can offer some protection from.
That doesn't mean the CDC guidance is wrong -- just that it applies to the US, not globally. We saw the same thing with early statements comparing the flu to the coronavirus -- you were much more likely to die of the flu in the US at the beginning of the outbreak when cases were focused in China, but that fact was twisted to suggest that this was true in China, or that the coronavirus was less deadly than the flu, when we now believe it might be considerably more so.