After weeks of telling Americans it is not necessary for “healthy” individuals to wear masks to prevent the spread of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), the government said it will now consider the possibility of asking all Americans to don face masks in public as the outbreak continues across the US.
The idea was raised by former Food and Drug Administration head, Dr. Scott Gottlieb, as part of a road map for fighting the coronavirus.
“I saw his suggestion on that. We will take a look at it,” President Trump said during his daily coronavirus news briefing.
The President noted that while he hasn’t discussed the suggestion with his coronavirus task force led by Vice President Mike Pence yet, wearing a face mask would be for “a period of time, not forever” should they decide to follow the recommendation.
“We want our country back,” President Trump said. “We are not going to be wearing masks forever, but it could be for a short period of time after we get back into gear. I could see something like that happening for a period of time.”
“I would hope it would be a very limited period of time,” he added.
In Asia, where the COVID-19 infection started, wearing masks in public became the norm. News emerged of a mysterious viral pneumonia as early as January.
Experts there believe that using face masks in public helped control the spread of the disease — often transferred through droplets suspended from the mouth of the carrier.
In the western world, however – the US and Europe included – wearing face masks wasn’t recommended by either the World Health Organization (WHO) or the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). “Only wear a mask if you are ill with COVID-19 symptoms (especially coughing) or looking after someone who may have COVID-19,” the CDC warned.
China, where the virus originated, recorded 81,518 coronavirus cases with 3, 305 deaths. Nearby territories like Hong Kong have 683 cases and 4 deaths. Macao had 38 cases with no fatalities recorded, and Taiwan recorded 322 cases with five deaths.
In comparison, the US now has at least 164,359 cases of coronavirus, with 3,173 people killed by the infection, by far the most cases worldwide. New York alone has treated 67,325 confirmed cases, and 1,342 have died from the virus.
Italy, which is the hardest-hit in Europe, has 101,739 coronavirus cases and 11,591 people dead.
What About the Shortage?
“If you are not ill or looking after someone who is ill then you are wasting a mask. There is a world-wide shortage of masks, so WHO urges people to use masks wisely,” the WHO said as part of its COVID-19 guidelines, advising on “rational use of medical masks.”
It noted that the most effective methods to combat COVID-19 are still to frequently clean your hands; to cover one’s cough with the bend of the elbow or tissue, and to maintain a distance of at least one meter (3 feet) from people who are coughing or sneezing.
Experts in Asia, however, have said that wearing face masks may have helped them stop person-to-person transmission of the disease.
The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, in particular, said: “it is a big mistake” to not wear a mask to protect individuals from COVID-19.
“The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth,” George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention told Science Mag in an interview.
“Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
Jeremy Howard, a research scientist from the University of San Francisco also wrote an op-ed in the Washington Post highlighting data from COVID-19 success stories in Asian countries such as South Korea, Hong Kong and Taiwan where everyone is wearing a mask.