Some experts have recently called on Americans to up their mask game amid a worsening coronavirus pandemic, by wearing two masks or purchasing better-quality masks. Some have even suggested that the federal government should send out high-quality masks to all.
But the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommendation remains the same: People should wear cloth masks of two or more layers. And masks should fit snugly over people’s noses and mouths.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, President Biden’s top medical adviser on the coronavirus, and CDC Director Rochelle Walensky, stuck with those recommendations in a CNN town hall on Wednesday night.
Fauci and Walensky emphasized that they simply want everyone to wear a mask, which officials say protects the person wearing it from getting infected - and from infecting other people.
“The most important thing is that everybody should be wearing a mask.” said Fauci. “The CDC does not recommend that you must wear two masks, nor does the CDC recommend that you have to wear an N95 mask. They just say, the most important thing is get everybody to wear a mask.”
Walensky, who until her recent appointment was chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital, said: “Everybody should be wearing a mask. Everybody, if you’re wearing a cloth mask, it should be a multi-layered mask so that you have several layers of protection for a single mask”
At the same time, Walensky emphasized the importance of staying 6 feet apart while wearing masks, a message that the CDC also emphasized on Twitter Wednesday. She said then “you have enough protective efficacy in the barriers of those two masks and the space between you.”
Does wearing a mask mean you don't have to stay 6 feet from other people? The answer is no. Wearing a mask in public AND keeping at least 6 feet between you and others are two actions to help stop the spread of #COVID19. Learn more: https://t.co/RxIwGVIdCq. pic.twitter.com/jnKObgZivZ— CDC Emergency (@CDCemergency) January 27, 2021
Walensky said there were “ongoing studies evaluating the protective efficacy of these masks, especially in the context of these new variants we’re seeing and so we’ll see more data on that to come.”
Public health officials and experts are concerned that new variants of the coronavirus could add fuel to the nation’s pandemic.
As for a national distribution of better-quality masks, which has been suggested by experts such as Dr. Abraar Karan, an internal medicine physician at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Walensky said she wasn’t sure the problem was access to masks.
“Now it’s not entirely clear to me that the reason that people aren’t wearing masks is because they don’t have access to them,” she said. “Certainly I would, I would highly advocate for those in areas where they’re under-resourced and they can’t purchase masks so they don’t have access to masks. We need to make sure that people have the adequate protection, but it’s not entirely clear in my mind that the challenge with mask-wearing has been one of access.”
She also said she was concerned that N95 masks, specifically, are so uncomfortable that they might deter people from wearing any mask.
“I have spent a reasonable amount of time in an N95 mask,” she said. ”They’re hard to tolerate all day every day.”
“And, in fact, when you really think about how well people will wear them — I worry that if we suggest or require that people wear N95s, they won’t wear them all the time. They’re very hard to breathe in, when you wear them properly. They’re very hard to tolerate when you wear them for long periods of time,” Walensky said at the town hall, which was hosted by CNN’s Anderson Cooper and Dr. Sanjay Gupta.
Karan, an outspoken advocate of better masks, said in an e-mail Thursday afternoon that he and others “have been pushing better masks since last spring — so we knew the idea would be met with some resistance by any administration. Part of this is that as soon as any official entity acknowledges that better masks are in fact needed or will be helpful, they will be in the hot seat to get people those masks. I understand that this can be challenging, financially, operationally, and even politically.”
“A successful response to the pandemic,” he said, “depends on us getting better at everything — testing, tracing, isolating, vaccinating, and masking.”
Regarding the comfort of N95 masks, he said advocates of better masks are not asking for people to them wear all day but in “high-risk situations with indoor crowding.”
He noted Walensky’s mention of ongoing studies, particularly in light of the new variants arriving in the United States, saying, “if they aren’t sure, shouldn’t they be invoking the precautionary principle and getting people better masks before we see even more infections?”
Martin Finucane can be reached at email@example.com.