The U.S. surgeon general on Sunday trumpeted the administration’s new recommendation that all Americans wear cloth masks in public, a reversal of its previous advice as the country braces for a dramatic surge in COVID-19 cases and potential fatalities this week.
“The next week is going to be our Pearl Harbor moment. It’s going to be our 9/11 moment. It’s going to be the hardest moment for many Americans in their entire lives,” Vice Admiral Jerome Adams warned on NBC’s “Meet the Press,” as he made rounds of political talk shows.
The push to wear masks follows updated guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. It is not mandatory but masks offer added protection against spreading the coronavirus, especially when people cannot practice 6-foot social distancing.
Studies show 25% of people infected with COVID-19 have mild or no symptoms and risk unknowingly spreading the disease by coughing or sneezing.
The masks do not protect the wearer so much as they prevent people from emitting the pathogen.
Mr. Adams posted a video online on how to make cloth face masks out of rubber bands and T-shirts, noting the public should rely on cloth masks and not surgical ones since medical personnel need that resource.
“Make sure if you put on a face mask, you don’t touch your face and you wash your hands before you utilize it,” said Dr. Adams, demonstrating his cloth mask.
The new guidance on using scarves to cover nose and mouth — or other homemade mask options — was issued on Friday when President Trump urged Americans to voluntarily don masks to help combat the spread of coronavirus — while still practicing social distancing.
He stressed the voluntary nature of the new guidance, noting the CDC wanted Americans to use a cloth face covering while reserving sophisticated N95 masks for health care workers on the front lines of the pandemic.
“It’s going to be, really, a voluntary thing. You can do it. You don’t have to do it. I’m choosing not to do it,” said Mr. Trump.
Deborah Birx, the U.S. coronavirus response coordinator, has said the guidance should be viewed as an add-on, and not a replacement for “social distancing” rules that urge people to stay at home when possible and stay 6 feet apart from others when venturing out.
She doesn’t want the masks to give Americans a false sense of complacency.
Americans should consider wearing cloth or homemade masks when in grocery stores, pharmacies and other public places, according to Dr. Adams.
“This is not a substitute for social distancing,” he said.
The guidance says children younger than 2 and those who might experience trouble breathing should not wear masks.
Mask-wearing is common in Asia but it’s an unusual concept in the U.S.
Mr. Trump has said he thinks a scarf might be a better option than a mask.
Lawmakers in both parties had pushed the CDC to release the guidance.
“Wearing a cloth mask is not a substitute for staying home and regularly washing our hands, but it is an important complement,” Sens. Pat Toomey, Pennsylvania Republican, and Michael Bennet, Colorado Democrat, said. “By wearing a cloth mask when in public, we will limit transmission of the virus, which can be spread through saliva emitted via cough, sneeze, or even when speaking and breathing. Put simply, my mask protects you, and your mask protects me.”
Arkansas Gov. Asa Hutchinson, though his state does not have a mandatory stay-at-home order, has said he is pushing his residents to practice social distancing and wear masks if they are going to work.
“We will do more as we need to,” he told NBC on Sunday.
• Tom Howell Jr. contributed to this report.