The US government is now recommending Americans wear cloth face-coverings on a voluntary basis to stem the spread of the coronavirus, President Donald Trump said on Friday, although he said he himself would not use one.
In a daily briefing with reporters, Mr Trump stressed that the recommendation should not be seen as replacing social-distancing measures considered key to slowing the outbreak, which has now claimed more lives in New York state than the September 11, 2001, attacks.
"With the masks, it's going to be really a voluntary thing. You can do it, you don't have to do it. I'm choosing not to do it, but some people may want to do it and that's OK," Mr Trump said.
Asked about the reasoning behind his decision, Mr Trump cited his high-profile meetings. "As I greet presidents, prime ministers, dictators, kings, queens ... I don't see it for myself, I just don't," Mr Trump said.
Trump on Friday signed an order directing his administration to stop the export to other countries of N-95 face masks and other personal protective equipment needed in the fight against the coronavirus pandemic.
In a statement, Mr Trump said his order under the Defense Production Act "is another step in our ongoing fight to prevent hoarding, price gouging, and profiteering by preventing the harmful export of critically needed PPE."
White House trade adviser Peter Navarro told Fox News the measure aims at cracking down on "brokers operating in shady black markets that have been vacuuming up masks and other protective gear here and exporting," and distributors who make money by sending the equipment abroad instead of filling domestic orders.
The decision to promote mask use comes as state governors and hospitals clamor for scarce supplies of medical-grade masks for first responders. Experts had questioned the administration's decision not to urge widespread mask use, in contrast to other countries hit by the virus.
"What has changed in our recommendation? Well, it's important to know that we now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms," Surgeon General Jerome Adams said, noting that new evidence points to viral transmission via speaking, in addition to coughing and sneezing. "Even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms," he said.
More than 57,000 people have died from Covid-19 since it was first detected late last year.
Worse may be coming as a quarter of global infections are in the United States, where Mr Trump has warned of a "very, very painful" first two weeks of April.
Europe reached the dark milestone of 40,000 dead, with Spain on Friday reporting more than 900 deaths in the past 24 hours.
Spaniard Javier Lara survived after being put on oxygen in an overcrowded intensive care unit - a shock to a 29-year-old who was athletic and doesn't smoke.
"I was panicking that my daughter would get infected," he said, describing facing death with an eight-week-old as the "worst moment" in his life.
But there were also signs the peak may be passing in Europe.
Hardest-hit Italy recorded 766 new deaths but its infections rose by just four percent, the lowest yet, according to the civil protection service.
"It's true that the latest figures, as high as they are, give us a little bit of hope," said Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany.
"But it is definitely much too early to see a clear trend in that, and it is certainly too early to think in any way about relaxing the strict rules we have given ourselves," she added.