DETROIT – Public health officials in the United States have said from the beginning of the coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak that masks aren’t recommended for the general public, but is that changing?
On Monday, President Donald Trump raised the possibility that mask use might be reconsidered for the general public.
“We’ll take a look at it,” Trump said. “For a period of time -- not forever. I mean, you now, we want our country back. We’re not going to be wearing masks forever, but it could be for a short period of time.”
Dr. Frank McGeorge said the first priority for any personal protective equipment, including masks, should be healthcare providers and anyone associated with the care of infected patients.
With that said, mask use might make sense, especially in communities that have high levels of COVID-19 spread -- but that comes with caveats.
Trump’s comments came in response to a question about whether mask use in public might be a possibility.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and World Health Organization have stated that mask use by healthy people who aren’t healthcare workers is unnecessary, but there are many countries, such as South Korea and Japan, where mask use is encouraged.
Momentum for mask use
Many European nations are reconsidering or changing their stances on mask use. Scientifically, recent studies published in the New England Journal of Medicine and the Journal of the American Medical Association taken together suggest microscopic aerosol particles expelled by a cough or sneeze could remain infections and linger in the air for an extended time or travel a further distance than the six feet of separate we’ve recommended.
Clearly, in a time of mask shortages, the priority will remain with those on the front line of patient care. Also, mask use is recommended to help infected people keep their coughs and sneezes covered and prevent the spread.
Now that we’re in a time of widespread community transmission and we should assume anyone might be infected, it makes sense that everyone should wear a mask for everyone’s mutual protection. But until there are enough masks for healthcare workers, the general public should consider homemade masks, Dr. McGeorge said.
Dr. McGeorge said he’s always felt the CDC’s stance strongly against masks for the public was a bit extreme, but it was justifiable looking at it from a risk-benefit standpoint.
There are potential downsides to masks, and when we lived in a lower transmission risk environment, there was limited possible benefit. Now times have changed and there is widespread community transmission, so the risk-benefit of using a mask in public has shifted, Dr. McGeorge believes.
Downsides of mask use
The possible downsides of mask use are important to emphasize.
Masks might provide a false sense of security to people. With or without a mask, social distancing and hand hygiene are critical.
If you use a mask, be sure to clean your hands before touching it, adjusting it, putting it on or taking it off.
Touching your face even when you have a mask on is a source of contamination.