With the number of confirmed cases of COVID-19 surging nationwide and health officials warning that, even in a best-case scenario, deaths from the disease could top 100,000 in the U.S., the government is reviewing its guidance on the use of face masks by the general population.
Asked at Tuesday’s press briefing of the White House coronavirus task force whether U.S. citizens should wear face masks, President Trump signaled that additional protection is “not a bad idea” and offered an alternative to medically approved masks, which are in short supply.
“My feeling is that if people want to do it, there’s certainly no harm to it. I would say do it, but use a scarf if you want, rather than going out and getting a mask or whatever. We’re making millions and millions of masks, but we want them to go to the hospitals. And one of the things that Dr. Fauci told me today was, ‘We don’t want them competing, we don’t want everybody competing with the hospitals who really need them,’” Trump said. “So, you can use scarves, you can use something else over your face. It doesn’t have to be a mask. It’s not a bad idea at least for a period of time. I mean, eventually you’re not going to want to do that, you’re not going to have to do that. This is going to be gone, hopefully gone for a long time.”
Until Tuesday, the federal government had discouraged the use of face masks as a way to avoid contracting COVID-19.
In recent days, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has been reviewing its guidance on whether to recommend that ordinary citizens, as well as health care workers, should wear face masks to help slow the spread of the coronavirus. CDC Director Robert Redfield cited new data that showed high rates of COVID-19 transmission from individuals infected with the virus but who are asymptomatic.
“That’s important, because now you have individuals that may not have any symptoms that can contribute to transmission, and we have learned that in fact they do contribute to transmission,” Redfield told NPR, adding that as many as 25 percent of people currently infected with the virus are asymptomatic.
World Health Organization Director-General Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said Wednesday that WHO was “continuing to study the evidence about the use of masks.” To date, the CDC and the World Health Organization have recommended them only for people who are showing symptoms of illness, to protect others from the virus. At the same time, however, masks, face shields and other protective gear are mandatory for health care workers from contracting the virus.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the leading medical expert on the coronavirus task force, told CNN on Wednesday that White House officials were also discussing new guidance on the use of face masks in light of the new data showing that the virus may remain airborne longer than previously thought.
“Particularly now that we’re getting some inklings that there’s transmission of infection from an asymptomatic person who is not coughing, who is not sneezing, who just appears well — well, then how do you think that’s happening?” Fauci said. “It very well could be aerosol. Maybe not aerosol, you know, that goes on for hours. But even the slight aerosol in which you’re talking to somebody.”
Numerous health experts have already been recommending that the public don masks whenever leaving the house. Former Food and Drug Administration Commissioner Scott Gottlieb wrote in a pandemic-response plan published by the American Enterprise Institute that “everyone, including people without symptoms, should be encouraged to wear nonmedical fabric face masks while in public.”
Demand for face masks has spurred some companies, both big and small, into action. While 3M has ramped up production of masks with the goal of manufacturing 2 billion in the coming year, independent companies have also stepped up.
Janelle Wavell-Jimenez, founder and CEO of a startup clothing company in Los Angeles called Stellari, told Yahoo News that she had pushed back the launch of her brand and transitioned her capital to the production of face masks that she will sell at cost.
“Wearing a mask when you do leave the house is basically protecting everyone else around you from droplet spread. We don’t know if we’re actually sick until we’ve been tested,” Wavell-Jimenez said. “No one really knows if they’re sick. I feel like telling people to assume that they’re sick and to protect their communities would have probably been better messaging.”
—Sam Matthews contributed reporting to this story.