WASHINGTON: The United States on Friday advised all Americans to wear masks in public to protect against the new coronavirus, fearing the illness that has infected more than one million people worldwide may be spreading by normal breathing.
The recommendation came as the US set a new record for the number of COVID-19 deaths in one day with 1,480 dead, the most of any country since the pandemic began. That topped the record set by the US the previous day with 1,169 deaths.
President Donald Trump said the government recommendation for all 330 million Americans to wear non-medical masks in places such as grocery stores would last "for a period of time."
"It's going to be really a voluntary thing," Trump told reporters. "You don't have to do it and I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that's okay."
US Surgeon General Jerome Adams said the decision came because many people with the virus were showing no symptoms, but warned it was still vital to practice "social distancing" by maintaining space between people.
The announcement came after Anthony Fauci, who is leading the government's scientific response, backed recent scholarship that found SARS-CoV-2 can be suspended in the ultrafine mist formed when people exhale.
Research indicates "the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing," Fauci said on Fox News.
The National Academy of Sciences sent a letter to the White House on April 1 summarizing recent research on the subject, saying it's not yet conclusive but "the results ... are consistent with aerosolization of virus from normal breathing."
Since the virus was first identified in China in late December last year, health experts have said it is primarily spread through coughing and sneezing.
The US recommendation will likely worsen an already severe shortage of masks in the United States and Europe, which both rely heavily on imports from China.
Trump urged Americans to "just make something" or use scarves, saving clinical masks for health professionals and patients.