Which individuals should wear medical masks in the context of COVID-19 according to WHO?

It is important to remember that the use of masks should be combined with other key infection prevention and control measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing, as they do not protect against COVID-19 on their own.

WHO recommends the use of medical masks for the following individuals:

Health workers

Why?  Health workers are the most likely to be exposed to the COVID-19 virus because they are in close contact with patients with suspected or confirmed COVID-19 and their surrounding environment. However, there are also reports of many health workers who are infected with the COVID-19 virus outside of the health facilities.

In areas where there are many people infected with COVID-19 in the community, health workers and caregivers should wear a medical mask while in clinical areas throughout the shift (apart from eating and drinking or needing to change the mask for specific reasons). This includes any clinical area, and in particular, triage and emergency rooms, family physician/GP practices, outpatient departments, COVID-19 dedicated units, haematological, cancer and transplant units, long-term health and residential facilities. It includes doctors, nurses, midwives, cleaners, and others working in clinical areas.

This is in addition to the previously WHO recommended practices that health workers caring for suspect or confirmed COVID-19 patients should follow droplet/contact precautions where a medical mask is part of the PPE package of recommendations, that includes: surgical gown, gloves, medical mask, and eye protection.

Please note, this is different from respirators, which are recommended for use in the context of where aerosol generating procedures are performed in health settings for a suspect/confirmed COVID-19 patient. In these settings, WHO recommends the use of airborne and contact precautions.

Link to how safely put on and remove PPE for droplet/contact precautions for COVID-19.

More information can be found in the guidance document on Infection prevention and control during health care when novel coronavirus (nCoV) infection is suspected.

People who are sick and exhibiting symptoms of COVID-19 or may suspect they have COVID-19

Why? Anyone who is sick, even with mild symptoms such as muscle aches, slight cough, sore throat or fatigue, should isolate at home and use a medical mask. Coughing, sneezing or talking can generate droplets that can spread the infection. These droplets can reach the face of others nearby or land on the surrounding environment. If an infected person coughs, sneezes, or talks wearing a medical mask, this helps to protect those nearby from infection. Sick people needing to go to a health facility should wear a medical mask. 

Anyone taking care of a person at home who is sick with COVID-19

Why? Those caring for individuals who are sick with COVID-19 should wear a medical mask for protection. Close and frequent contact with someone with COVID-19 can put those caring for them at high risk.

People 60 years old and over or anyone with pre-existing medical conditions (such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, lung disease, or cancer)

Why? These people should wear a medical mask for protection because they are at a higher risk of becoming seriously ill with the disease and dying.

Remember, the use of a fabric mask alone is not sufficient to provide an adequate level of protection. Maintain a minimum physical distance of at least 1 metre from others, frequently clean your hands and avoid touching your eyes, mouth, and nose while wearing a mask.

WHO recommends that people always consult local authorities on recommended practices in their area.