U.S. Government Discussing New Guidance On Wearing Face Masks In Public

Apr 1, 2020
Originally published on April 1, 2020 5:17 pm
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Should we all be wearing masks when we go out in public during this coronavirus pandemic? Some public health experts say yes. The CDC guidance is that only people who are sick or caring for the sick should wear masks. Earlier this week, Robert Redfield, the director of the CDC, told NPR that that policy is under review. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: A few months ago, it may have looked silly to wear a face mask to the grocery store but no longer. Former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb says if everyone wore a face mask when they go out, it could help slow the spread.

SCOTT GOTTLIEB: Masks have long been demonstrated to be helpful in the setting of infectious disease.

AUBREY: He says face masks are used widely by members of the public in some places that are thought to have successfully managed their outbreaks, including South Korea and Hong Kong. Of course, it is important to keep up the social distancing, handwashing and sanitizing surfaces. But Gottlieb says masks can offer an additional layer of protection.

GOTTLIEB: If you're a person who has the coronavirus and you're mildly symptomatic or you're asymptomatic and don't even know that you have symptoms at all and you have a mask on, you're going to be far less likely to transmit the infection.

AUBREY: The head of the Chinese CDC is on record saying that he thinks the U.S. is making a mistake by not promoting the wider use of masks for the public. And the Trump administration says it is reviewing the current policy, which, for now, says the only people who need to wear a mask are those who are sick or taking care of someone who is.

Jahan Fahimi is the medical director for the emergency department at UCSF. He says there are good arguments to be made to broaden the use of masks.

JAHAN FAHIMI: It absolutely makes sense. If you really are talking about minimizing the mechanism by which this virus spreads, masking does seem to make sense. The challenge is, do we have enough masks?

AUBREY: There is no question that supplies are limited, and there are many reports of shortages, so people have started making their own masks. And last night, when President Trump was asked about the mask policy, he said people could consider using a scarf to cover their faces.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: I mean, most people have scarves, and scarves are very good. And they can use a scarf. And we're only talking about a limited period of time.

AUBREY: It's not clear how much protection a scarf may offer. Scott Gottlieb says he agrees that medical masks are needed in hospitals and health care settings.

GOTTLIEB: So you really don't want to pull any kind of medical masks out of the system. But as an alternative, CDC can issue guidelines on advising people on how to construct their own cotton masks. Those cotton masks should provide a reasonable degree of protection from people being able to transmit the virus.

AUBREY: Deborah Birx of the White House coronavirus task force says they are reviewing the mask policy.

Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.