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Experts say wearing a face mask is still key to avoiding COVID-19. Getty Images
  • New research shows that protective eye coverings may also help stop the spread of disease.
  • Dr. Anthony Fauci said goggles or face shields might be more necessary for certain people and in certain regions than others.
  • For now using a face mask still remains key to avoiding COVID-19.

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By now most people are aware that face masks or cloth coverings are one of the most effective ways to help reduce the spread of transmission of COVID-19.

A study from April 2020 shows that universal masking is one of the key ways to contain or slow the pandemic.

But new research shows that we could take it a step further by making sure our eyes are covered with protective goggles or a face shield.

More than 18.6 million people around the world have contracted COVID-19, with more than 700,000 having died from it. The United States is the worst-affected country in the world, with several states that have dramatic upticks in new cases since entering reopening phases.

At the end of July, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told ABC News that Americans should consider wearing goggles or a face shield to further prevent the spread.

Fauci’s statement was not that goggles should replace masks, but in certain situations would act as an additional line of defense. So what do we know about the risk?

A report published by JAMA Ophthalmology found that COVID-19 might be able to be contracted through the eyes.

“We’ve known it’s a risk at the hospital level,” said Dr. Matthew Heinz, hospitalist and internist in Tucson, Arizona. “If someone is coughing or sneezing and they don’t have a face shield, those droplets can get into the mucous membranes around the eyes and infect people.”

“You have mucosa in the nose, mucosa in the mouth, but you also have mucosa in the eye,” Fauci told ABC News Chief Medical Correspondent Dr. Jennifer Ashton during an Instagram Live conversation on ABC News.

“Transmission through the eyes is unlikely, although infection with COVID-19 is nearly three times more likely without eye protection than with it,” said Dr. Joel S. Schuman, director of the NYU Langone Eye Center and chair of the Department of Ophthalmology at NYU Langone Health.

Still, Fauci clarified that eye goggles do not have to become as widespread as masks.

Instead, there are certain people and certain regions where goggles or face shields might make more sense.

Theoretically, he told ABC News, goggles add an extra level of protection, but at this time they are not universally recommended, whereas masks are.

The people who should consider goggles are those who live or work in areas with a higher concentration of the virus, or who work in public-facing roles.

“For months we’ve required clinicians, therapists, nurses, and physicians treating patients to have eye protection, especially if it’s a known or suspected case [of COVID-19],” said Heinz. “It doesn’t sound like everyone should be in a helmet, but depending on risk of exposure it makes a lot of sense. As a physician working with a lot of COVID patients, I wear goggles.”

He mentioned other professions like grocery store clerks, pharmacists, or customer-facing employees could also benefit from added protection. That said, it’s not necessarily a precaution that everyone needs to take at this time.

“I believe Dr. Fauci knows what he’s doing,” added Heinz. “He’s our foremost expert and public health official. As we become more familiar with the virus and how it spreads, we have modified recommendations as the disease evolves and we learn more about it. I think it makes sense from time to time to update the recommendations.”