If you're confused by the conflicting messages the public has received on the necessity — or uselessness — of wearing a mask in public, you're not alone. Of the many sound guidelines and safety suggestions delivered over the past month to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic, this is one area where health officials have been far too slow to react, and alarmingly indecisive.

At first we were told not to buy masks because it would diminish the supply for the medical professionals who need them most. That was the Twitter message from the U.S. surgeon general on Feb. 29, who added that masks "are NOT effective in preventing (the) general public from catching" the coronavirus.

Even if that may not have made complete sense — how do masks protect health care workers if they can't protect the public? — most Americans were willing to set aside the skepticism and leave the masks for those in the medical field.

Over the intervening weeks, as more information about the ever-changing novel coronavirus came out, researchers learned that asymptomatic and presymptomatic individuals could spread the virus before they were sick. Wearing a mask, researchers said, could help stop infected people from spreading the virus to others.

The issue of asymptomatic carriers was known since February and became more apparent through the month of March, but it wasn't until April 3 that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a recommendation that Americans wear homemade cloth face coverings " ... as an additional, voluntary public health measure." The emphasis there was on "voluntary."

That changed for Pennsylvania residents on April 15 when the Department of Health issued an order requiring customers and employees at businesses still operating to wear masks. Pennsylvania joins New York, New Jersey and Maryland as states that now require people to wear masks in public.

All of this raises an obvious question: If masks can offer even the slightest bit of protection, and they are homemade so as not to cut into supplies for health care workers, why not recommend wearing them from the start?

Though there is no clear-cut data on their effectiveness, there's certainly enough anecdotal evidence that they could help stop the spread of COVID-19.

Other governments — Hong Kong, China, South Korea — recommended wearing masks as early as January. They appear to be on the downward side of the pandemic.

While the message on wearing masks has been conflicting, the one point on which health officials agree is that the masks serve as protection not for the person wearing it, but for those in close proximity. So wearing a mask is actually a safety precaution to prevent someone who may be asymptomatic from unknowingly spreading the virus.

Wearing masks in public appears to be the new normal for the foreseeable future, but one can't help but wonder if it's something that should have been started weeks ago.

— Pittsburgh Post-Gazette