Sunday, April 5, 2020

CDC Advises Cloth Masks for Everyone. Why Now?


I haven’t seen so many masks since I was a Trick or Treater.  Even as a physician, I have worn surgical masks very rarely as it was uncommon for me to be in an operating room, where masks and gowns are part of the dress code.  Until I embarked upon a transition to telemedicine recently, many of the patients coming to see me in the office were masked.

The official dogma on wearing masks during the pandemic is evolving. Experts at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) the World Health Organization (WHO), the Surgeon General as well as many prominent public health officials had advised just recently that masks were not an effective barrier against coronavirus.  This is why asymptomatic individuals were not advised to mask up.  In contrast, we were told that these masks should be worn by symptomatic individuals who were coughing or sneezing as masks may reduce the risk that others will become infected.

Just days ago, there was a sudden change in policy.  Now the CDC and many of the president's advisors and others are recommending widespread cloth mask use to keep those who are silently infected from transmitting the germ to others. The WHO has not signed on to these revised recommendations. While it is still true that cloth face coverings are not likely to protect a healthy individual from infection, the hope is that such a barrier may prevent a asymptomatic infected individual from spreading the virus.  It's not clear to me why the revision was issued now as we have known for months that asymptomatic individuals can spread the infection.  The explanation for the policy change has been murky  


Could there be a downside?


It is confusing when an important safety recommendation undergoes dramatic and abrupt revision, particularly when there is already endemic anxiety.  The public needs consistent messaging.  It is unsettling when organizations, experts and government officials have different opinions on what precautions we should take.

Here are some of my concerns about widespread use of cloth face coverings:
  • Frequent adjusting of the cloth covering by new users will increase hand to face contact, which is a sure method of coronavirus infection
  • Individuals, despite CDC advice, may use medical grade masks which should be reserved for medical professionals
  • False sense of security of masked folks who may relax their social distancing practices, which every expert maintains is our paramount strategy to flatten the curve and save lives
  • Symptomatic individuals who should be at home might feel that a mask will allow them to enter out into the community risking transmission as they may believe that they are less infectious
  • Will mask wears know how to carefully remove the mask when they return home, clean it after every use and wash hands well when placing and removing the mask?
Don't misunderstand me.  I'm not qualified to opine on the wisdom of the policy.  I do think that the abrupt policy change and mixed messaging is confusing.   And, I don't think it's quite as simple as slap on a mask and all will be well.  I offered above a listing of some of my concerns that I do not think have been sufficiently considered or publicized.  .  
I worry that the expanded attention and use of masks may distract us from two measures that every expert unwavering insists upon.   Keep your distance consistently  And wash your hands often and thoroughly as if you have just touched the virus. 


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