Earlier this year, when coronavirus was just beginning to emerge as a serious health threat, we started hearing a lot about face masks. Specifically, how they were selling out — and why they shouldn’t be. We were told that healthy people didn’t need to wear face masks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said so! But now, they may be changing their minds.
Right now, the CDC guidelines recommend that two groups wear face masks: healthcare workers, since they’re around coronavirus patients often and need the extra protection; and those who suspect they may be sick, since a mask can trap the wearers’ respiratory droplets, preventing them from infecting others.
But this advice could be subject to change, according to Robert Redfield, MD, CDC Director. “I can tell you that the data and this issue of whether it’s going to contribute [to prevention] is being aggressively reviewed as we speak,” Redfield told NPR on March 30.
“Getting a much more broad community wide use of masks outside of the health care setting is under very active discussion,” added Anthony Fauci, MD, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, in an interview with CNN.
The main argument for this change is the high rates of people with coronavirus who are asymptomatic. They don’t realize they have COVID-19, so they’re more likely to take actions, such as leaving the house or attending gatherings, that could expose others. Since face masks do appear to keep sick people from passing their germs to others, recommending that everyone wears a face mask could conceivably help protect communities from these invisible carriers.
“Face masks will be most effective at slowing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 if they are widely used, because they may help prevent people who are asymptomatically infected from transmitting the disease unknowingly,” Scott Gottlieb, MD, a former commissioner of the Food and Drug Administration, wrote in a report about the coronavirus.
“I would recommend everyone wear a mask,” says Shannon Sovndal, MD, an EMS medical director in Boulder, Colorado and the author of Fragile. “We know that COVID-19 can be carried and spread even when an individual is asymptomatic. I have read that the CDC was considering making universal mask use their recommendation. There have been reports from some Asian counties that widespread use of masks has helped curtail the transmission of the virus.”
Of course, access to face masks has been an issue since the early days of the pandemic. “It is crucial to have adequate supplies of masks for first responders and health care workers,” Dr. Sovndal explains. “If there are limited supplies in your area, then ideally the masks would go this high-risk group.”
He also acknowledges that due to the increased demand for masks, people may have to re-use them. “This is going against standard norms of mask use in non-pandemic times,” he says. His advice for this situation: “It’s important that when you are putting on and taking masks off that you keep the ‘inside’ inside and the ‘outside’ outside. It is absolutely imperative that the outside of the mask never touches your face.”
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