Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and officials in Multnomah, Clackamas and Washington counties, share new guidelines.

PMG PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - A TriMet MAX passenger rode through central Portland wearing a face mask recently. Wearing a cloth face mask when out in public is a vital step everyone should take to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, regional health officials recommended on Friday, April 3.

Metro area officials say they are passing along the advice from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, noting that simple homemade masks are especially helpful in areas where it is hard to maintain 6 feet of physical distance, such as crowded grocery store aisles.

"Do not interpret this recommendation as it's OK to go out as long as you're wearing a mask," said Multnomah County Health Officer Dr. Jennifer Vines. "If you are sick, this is not an option for you. You should be staying at home."

But it is a change in guidance, Vines added, calling it "that final level of protection."

New studies of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, show that many unwitting carriers of the illness can transmit the virus to others before they start developing symptoms, such as coughing or sneezing. A face covering can block those droplets, which also can be spread simply by talking. Crafters have started getting into the act, using patterns found online to sew their own protective masks.

"Face coverings don't meet infection prevention (guidelines) for health care workers, but cloth covers block droplets from people who might have COVID-19 and be asymptomatic and have mild symptoms," said Washington County Health Officer Dr. Christina Baumann. "If we have no symptoms, or mild symptoms, when I wear a face covering, I protect you. And when you wear face covering, you protect me."

The public health announcement was made by a video conference call with reporters on Friday night.

Clackamas County Health Officer Dr. Sarah Present said residents shouldn't seek out medical or industrial grade masks and respirators, which are in short supply. They are desperately needed by frontline health-care workers.

While cloth masks aren't as effective as N95 respirators, they do offer some level of protection. Residents with medical-grade masks are asked to donate them.

Dr. Present said a cloth mask should be washed and changed as soon as they become moist and soiled.

She emphasized that it is not a crime to be outside without a mask on, as this new advice is only voluntary. The police should not be called just because someone is outside without a mask.

"There's nothing usual in this unusual time," Present said. "Keep a distance and be kind to your neighbors."

TriMet on Friday announced that its train and bus drivers would be given masks as well.

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