Face Masks Could Become Part of Government Effort to Slow COVID-19

March 31, 2020

WaPo reports CDC officials are considering a face mask recommendation.

Americans could soon be encouraged to wear face masks in public to help stop the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, according to the Washington Post.

CDC officials are mulling over whether to make face mask recommendation, the newspaper reported in a story posted last night.

President Trump was asked about face masks at yesterday’s White House coronavirus briefing. The president said the White House “will take a look at it. [It will be] for a period of time, not forever. We want our country back. We are not going to be wearing masks forever. But it would be for a short period of time after we get back into gear.”

The Post reports that the CDC guidance would make it clear that public should not wear medical masks - including N95 and surgical masks - that are in short supply and needed by healthcare workers to protect themselves against infection with the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. The health officials told the newspaper that the federal government recommendation may instead call for improvised, do-it-yourself coverings.

The intent of face masks for the general public is stop asymptomatic people from spreading the disease by trapping virus-containing droplets that they might expel so other people might get infected. The masks that the public would be encouraged to wear are not intended to keep people from inhaling in the virus.

The discussion of masks has been prompted in part by former FDA commissioner Scott Gottlieb, MD. He is the lead author of an American Enterprise Institute report titled “National Coronavirus Response: A Road Map to Reopening” that came out on Sunday. Gottlieb and his co-authors divide the response to COVID-19 into four phases and say that encouraging Americans to wear face masks in public should be part of the first phase, which also includes social distancing, advisories against unnecessary travel, and WFH policies.

Their plan mentions the evidence that asymptomatic and presymptomatic transmission of COVID-19 is possible and to reduce that risk, “everyone, including people without symptoms, should be encouraged to wear nonmedical fabric face masks while in public.” 

Gottlieb and his co-authors - who include Mark B. McClellan, MD, who was one of the FDA administrators during the George W. Bush administration - go on to say that the masks “may help prevent people who are asymptomatically infected from transmitting the disease unknowingly.” They also note that face masks have been part of the response to control COVID-19 in South Korea and Hong Kong.