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Face shield vs. mask: Which prevents the spread of COVID-19 better?

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Plastic face shields are likely not as effective in preventing the spread of the coronavirus as cloth face masks, experts believe. As COVID-19 cases surge in the United States and around the world, doctors continue to urge the public to wear masks, observe social distancing and wash their hands.

In one recent example, during an outbreak of the virus at a hotel in Switzerland, health officials said employees wearing only face shields tested positive, while those wearing masks did not contract it, a local news outlet reported. One guest, who had interacted with the employees wearing face shields, also tested positive. A top doctor in the country warned that the shields "create a false sense of security."

Face shields may be easier to clean than cloth masks and could be more comfortable, but they are likely not sufficient because the coronavirus spreads through microscopic respiratory droplets that can easily get around the open sides, Dr. Shoshana Ungerleider, an internal medicine physician in San Francisco, said Monday on CBSN.

"We know this virus spreads through little tiny particles, and with having the sides and the bottom of a face shield open, that can be problematic," she said.

The Railway Museum In Japan Reopens
Employees wearing masks and face shields are seen at the Railway Museum on the first day of re-opening on June 10, 2020, in Saitama, Japan.  Takashi Aoyama / Getty Images

Ungerleider said shields may add a certain amount of extra protection, but people should prioritize wearing masks.

"The fact that they cover the eyes is thought to be protective, but it's not enough," she said. "The takeaway is that you should always, always wear a mask, but if you happen to have a face shield, you need to wear it with your mask."

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has given similar guidance.

"It is not known if face shields provide any benefit as source control to protect others from the spray of respiratory particles," the agency says. "CDC does not recommend use of face shields for normal everyday activities or as a substitute for masks."

In addition to wearing masks, the CDC continues to recommend maintaining social distance of at least six feet with other people, washing hands often and disinfecting frequently touched surfaces.

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