Coronavirus: US moves towards promoting broader use of face masks

Trump administration will likely recommend that those in US coronavirus hot spots wear nonmedical masks when outside.

A person wearing a protective mask walks along Myrtle Avenue in the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn, in New York, the United States [Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP]
A person wearing a protective mask walks along Myrtle Avenue in the Bushwick neighbourhood of Brooklyn, in New York, the United States [Stephanie Keith/Getty Images/AFP]

The administration of United States President Donald Trump is formalising new guidance to recommend that many, if not all, people living in US coronavirus hot spots wear face coverings when leaving home, in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus.

The recommendations, still being finalised on Thursday, would apply at least to those who live in areas hard-hit by community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. A person familiar with the White House coronavirus task force’s discussion said officials would suggest that nonmedical masks, T-shirts or bandannas be used to cover the nose and mouth when outside the home – for instance, at the grocery store or pharmacy. Medical-grade masks, particularly short-in-supply N95 masks, would be reserved for those dealing directly with the sick.

The person spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss the proposed guidance before its public release.

Trump, who was tested again for COVID-19 on Thursday using a new rapid test, indicated on Tuesday that he would support such a recommendation, potentially even for all Americans regardless of where they live.

“I would say do it, but use a scarf if you want, you know, rather than going out and getting a mask or whatever,” he said.

“It’s not a bad idea, at least for a period of time,” he added.

The White House said Trump’s latest test returned a negative result in 15 minutes, and said Trump was “healthy and without symptoms”.

A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) draft of the guidance would make the covering recommendation apply to nearly all Americans, all over the country, according to a federal official who has seen the draft but was not authorised to discuss it.

Some exceptions would be young children under age two, anyone who has trouble breathing or anyone who is unable to remove the covering without help.

Officials were still discussing whether to limit the recommendation’s geographic scope.

Under the previous guidance, only the sick or those at high risk of complications from the respiratory illness were advised to wear masks. The new proposal was driven by research showing that some infections are being spread by people who seem to be healthy.


On Wednesday, Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, urged his city’s four million residents to wear masks when they’re in public.

In response to recent studies, the CDC on Wednesday changed how it was defining the risk of infection for Americans. It essentially says anyone may be a considered a carrier, whether they have symptoms or not.

The virus spreads mostly through droplets from coughs or sneezes, though experts stress that the germ is still not fully understood.

US officials have been telling people to stay at home as much as possible, and keep at least six feet (two metres) away from others when they do go out. Other advice includes frequent handwashing and not touching your face.

But until now, federal officials have stopped short of telling people to cover their faces out in public.

Scientists can’t rule out that infected people sometimes exhale COVID-19 virus particles, rather than just when coughing or sneezing, but there isn’t enough evidence to show if that can cause infection, according to a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to advise the White House.

Medical professionals and hospital employees transfer a body on a hospital gurney into temporary storage in a mobile morgue, being used due to lack of space at the hospital, outside of the Brooklyn Hospital Center in Brooklyn, New York, the United States [Justin Lane/EPA] 

The question has to do with whether the new coronavirus spreads mostly by droplets that don’t linger for long in the air, or also by tinier “aerosolised” particles. Certain medical procedures, such as inserting breathing tubes, can create those tiny particles, which is why healthcare workers wear close-fitting N95 masks during such care.

The committee cited one study that detected airborne viral ribonucleic acid (RNA) in and just outside some hospital isolation rooms, but noted that it was unclear if that could infect someone.

US Surgeon General Dr Jerome Adams has repeatedly admonished Americans not to wear face masks, saying they don’t prevent the people who wear them from catching the virus. He and other officials have stressed that surgical face masks and other protective medical equipment have been in short supply and must be prioritised for people such as healthcare workers.

‘No specific evidence’

The World Health Organization on Monday reiterated its advice that people in the general population do not need to wear face masks unless they are sick. Since the epidemic began in China, the WHO has said masks are for the sick and for people caring for them.

“There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit,” WHO’s epidemic chief Dr Mike Ryan said during a news conference. “In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite,” he added, noting risks from an improperly fitted mask – or from improperly putting it on or taking it off.

Two people wear face masks and gloves as a proactive prevention measure, at a campaign event of Democratic presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, at Los Angeles Convention Center in Los Angeles, California [Damian Dovarganes/AP Photo] 

That’s in addition to the problem that healthcare workers who do need masks are facing “a massive global shortage,” Ryan said. “The thought of them not having masks is horrific, so we have to be very careful on supply, but that is not the primary reason why WHO has advised against using masks.”

Many people have taken it upon themselves to make their own masks, but one North Carolina health system found that such products vary in how well they work. Wake Forest Baptist Health doctors and scientists tested 13 different designs made by community volunteers. They found that some were better at filtering than off-the-shelf surgical masks, but others were barely better than wearing no mask at all.

Separately, a 2013 study tested whether homemade masks might help during a flu pandemic. It found surgical masks were three times more effective in catching droplets from coughing people than masks made from cotton T-shirts, though it’s not clear if the new coronavirus behaves exactly like flu viruses.

Source : AP

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