Reversing prior advice, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is now recommending everyone in the United States wear cloth face masks in public settings such as pharmacies and grocery stores. The CDC suggests this new advice is primarily designed to reduce COVID-19 transmission from those who may be unaware they have the disease.
The new US federal guidance was announced by President Trump during last Friday’s White House press briefing. The CDC says the new recommendation was influenced by a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting COVID-19 can be spread by those who are infected but show no symptoms at all (so-called asymptomatic cases), and those who are infected but have yet to develop symptoms (pre-symptomatic cases).
“In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain (e.g., grocery stores and pharmacies) especially in areas of significant community-based transmission,” the new CDC guidance states.
The CDC stresses this new recommendation does not mean everyone should wear surgical masks or N-95 masks, as these are reserved for healthcare workers and other first responders. And, as CDC director Robert Redfield reiterated in a recent interview with STATNews, the recommendation is not about extra protection for individuals from the virus, but instead about slowing community transmission from those unaware they have contracted the disease.
“It’s not a decision to try to protect me from getting coronavirus,” says Redfield. “It’s to help modify spreading. And there is scientific data to show that when you aerosolized virus through a cloth barrier, you have a reduction in the amount of virus that gets through the other side. Kind of a homemade, make-it-yourself barrier, whether it’s a bandana or a scarf.”
Experts have been divided on the topic of mask wearing over the past week. Some have suggested mass population mask wearing may reduce levels of community transmission considering there is increasing evidence of asymptomatic transmission. However, other experts have expressed concern masks can breed a false sense of security, resulting in wearers relaxing social distancing measures and general hygiene practices.
It is this particular concern that seems to be causing the World Health Organization to hold back from instituting general mask wearing recommendations. Michael Ryan, Chief Executive Director of the WHO Health Emergencies Programme, reiterated this point at the WHO’s most recent press briefing.
“We must preserve medical, surgical and respirator masks for our front-line workers but the idea of using respiratory coverings or mouth coverings to prevent coughing and sneezing projecting disease into the environment or towards others; that’s a mechanical process and that in itself is not a bad idea but that doesn’t negate the need for hand-washing, it doesn’t negate the need for physical distancing, it doesn’t negate the need for people to stay at home if there’s a stay-at-home order in place,” said Ryan.
At the White House briefing announcing the new guideline, Trump stressed this is not a mandatory requirement, but instead it’s a voluntary recommendation. One he says he may not follow himself.
“This is voluntary. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it,” Trump said. ““I just don’t want to wear one myself. They say ‘recommendation’, they recommend it. I’m feeling good.”
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