- The Washington Times - Tuesday, March 31, 2020

The federal government is considering changes to current guidance that says healthy members of the general public don’t need to wear protective masks amid the escalating COVID-19 outbreak.

Health officials have hotly debated whether there are preventive benefits to shielding your face if you aren’t sick. Members of the White House coronavirus task force say they’re carefully eyeing a potential change.

“My feeling is that [if] people want to do it, there’s certainly no harm to it. I would say do it,” President Trump said Tuesday at his daily White House coronavirus task-force press conference.

Mr. Trump suggested that people could use scarves to protect their faces, saying they want masks to go to hospitals right now.

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

Dr. Anthony Fauci on Tuesday said the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is looking at the issue.

“If we do not have the problem of taking away masks from the health care workers who need them, I would lean towards it,” Dr. Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told CNN’s Sanjay Gupta. “What harm can it do if you have enough masks?”

The CDC has said people who are sick should wear face masks, but that others don’t need to do so unless they’re caring for someone who is sick. The agency counsels that critical supplies should be saved for caregivers.

The World Health Organization has likewise advised that healthy people only need to wear a mask if they’re taking care of a person with a suspected COVID-19 infection.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams cited the official CDC and WHO guidance in making the case Tuesday that the general public shouldn’t start wearing masks as a protective measure.

For one, wearing a mask improperly can increase someone’s risk of getting a disease because people might touch their faces more, he said. Second, he added, it can give a false sense of security, and finally, there are still personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages across the country.

“So we want to make sure we are reserving PPE for the people who most need it,” Dr. Adams said. “That’s how you’re going to get the largest effect because if health care workers get sick, they can’t take care of you when you get sick.”

Still, there are active discussions at the CDC about the guidelines.

“If you have a mask and it makes you feel better, then, by all means, wear it. But know that the more you touch your face, the more you put yourself at risk,” Dr. Adams said on Fox News.

Questions persist about whether there are potential health benefits to wearing a mask amid the outbreak.

The surgeon general shot down the idea of mass producing for public use the N95 masks that health care workers are wearing.

COVID-19 is a viral respiratory disease, and it’s unclear how long and under what conditions the virus can survive in the air or on other surfaces.

Dr. Michael Ryan with the WHO downplayed the notion that wearing masks has any potential benefit for the general population.

“Right now the people most at risk from this virus are frontline health workers who are exposed to the virus every second of every day,” Dr. Ryan said this week. “The thought of them not having masks is horrific.”

But Dr. Scott Gottlieb, a former Food and Drug Administration commissioner under President Trump, is among those making the case that the federal government should be encouraging the public to wear masks as part of the coronavirus response.

The nonmedical fabric face masks can slow the spread of the virus if they’re widely used because they could prevent asymptomatic people from transferring it unknowingly, Dr. Gottlieb and others wrote in a coronavirus “Roadmap to Reopening” published this month by the American Enterprise Institute.

Dr. Gottlieb said this week that self-made cotton protective masks could be key when the country tries to open back up amid various state lockdown orders.

“Telling people well, you don’t have to stay at home any more, but if you go out you have to wear a mask — that could be an interim step that you take as you transition away from these very restrictive measures,” he said on CBS’s “Face the Nation.”

• David Sherfinski can be reached at dsherfinski@washingtontimes.com.

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