March 31, 2020
Federal health officials are reconsidering public guidelines regarding face masks amid the coronavirus pandemic.
For weeks, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has advised people against wearing face masks. But that may change.
Though health experts say most masks do little to prevent those who wear them from becoming infected, they prevent sick individuals from spreading the virus.
Given the number of asymptomatic people who may be transmitting the coronavirus unknowingly, encouraging the public to wear non-medical masks may prove an effective mitigation strategy.
CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told NPR on Monday that its guidelines are being "aggressively reviewed as we speak."
Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine said Tuesday that state officials are aware of the CDC's ongoing discussions. But they have not yet adopted a position.
Still, she clarified the discussion revolves around cloth masks – not the N95 respirators needed by medical workers on the front lines. Those respirators are much more adept at protecting the medical personnel who wear them.
"The N95 and those types of infectious disease masks have to be for health care providers on the front lines," Levine said. "But for cloth masks, my mask protects you and your masks protects me."
The coronavirus spreads through respiratory droplets that are produced when an infected person sneezes or coughs, according to the CDC. They can land on the mouths and noses of nearby people or be inhaled through the lungs. They also can fall on surfaces, potentially infecting others who touch those surfaces.
"If someone is potentially having very mild symptoms of COVID-19, if they wear a mask, it could prevent large droplets from being dispersed into the air," Levine said. "That would protect you and, for you, that would do the same for me."
Redfield told NPR that infected individuals are probably shedding the virus up to 48 hours before developing symptoms. And then there are others who never display symptoms, but may still be passing the virus along.
"One of the (pieces of) information that we have pretty much confirmed now is that a significant number of individuals that are infected actually remain asymptomatic," Redfield said. "That may be as many as 25%. 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."
Plus, he said the coronavirus appears to be about three times as infectious as influenza.
During flu season, doctors offices regularly encourage sick patients to wear masks in the waiting room to prevent them from spreading germs.
The idea of asking healthy people to wear masks in public may be gaining traction.
George Gao, head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the United States and European countries have made a "big mistake" by not having people wearing masks, noting the impact of asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic individuals.
Dr. Scott Gottlieb, the former head of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, called for the CDC to encourage the public to wear cloth masks in an interview Sunday with CBS News.
"The value of the mask isn’t necessarily to protect you from getting sick, although it may offer some protection," Gottlieb said. "It’s to protect you from other people. So when someone who’s infected is wearing a mask, they’re much less likely to transmit infection."