UPDATE June 5: When this article was almost ready, WHO has finally — FINALLY — updated their guidelines on wearing face masks.
After telling us for months that general public shouldn’t use face masks for coronavirus protection because they don’t protect the wearer, WHO is finally admitting that they kind of do.
Here are 2 major takeaways from the new guidance.
In areas with community transmission, the WHO now advises that members of the general public aged 60 and older and those with underlying conditions should wear a medical mask in situations where physical distancing is not possible.
The general public should wear non-medical masks where there is widespread transmission and when physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments.
While this recommendation doesn’t go nearly as far as it should considering a huge prevalence of asymptomatic cases, it’s now more rooted in reality than everything we’ve heard from healthcare officials up until now.
COVID-19 isn’t going anywhere
There is no shortage of experts’ interviews nowadays, but no matter who’s doing the interviews, everyone agrees that COVID-19 is here to stay.
We’re nowhere near the working vaccine, and some research, as well as plenty of anecdotal evidence, suggests that the presence of the antibodies doesn’t mean automatic immunity.
And yet, most of the world has somehow decided that enough is enough, and it’s time to reopen. Never mind that 21 states have seen the growth of new cases in the last 2 weeks, and in 12 other states (plus Guam) the spread of the disease is not going down.
Then there are protests. And looting. All over the country. Thousands upon thousands of people getting together. Weeks will pass until we know if there are any upticks in new cases or not, although why would there not be? COVID-19 doesn’t have political preferences.
But never mind the protests either. Let’s reopen. We must reopen. No matter what. We just can’t take it anymore.
And as if everything else weren’t enough, there is this other plague. People who refuse to wear masks. You know who I’m talking about. Freedom-loving fellows. “Your health is not more important than my liberty,” that kind of folks.
Japan was one of the countries that screwed up badly in combating COVID-19, with lax social distancing rules, open bars and restaurants, trains full to the brim. And yet, there was one thing they did right. Per the NYT (here and hereafter, bolding is mine):
Japan has reported more than 17,000 infections and just over 900 deaths, while the United States, with a population roughly two and a half times as large, has topped 1.9 million cases and is approaching 110,000 deaths.
“Japan, I think a lot of people agree, kind of did everything wrong, with poor social distancing, karaoke bars still open and public transit packed near the zone where the worst outbreaks were happening,” Jeremy Howard, a researcher at the University of San Francisco who has studied the use of masks, said of the country’s early response. “But the one thing that Japan did right was masks.”
Both WHO and CDC are complicit in the spread of the novel coronavirus
They have blood on their hands. No doubt about it.
Just to be clear, I’m not talking about WHO’s bizarre parroting of the Chinese propaganda, or CDC’s political complacency and COVID-19 tests fiasco. I’m talking about their stubborn resistance to the simplest and cheapest device in the world that can reduce and eventually stop the spread of the plague.
A face mask, AKA surgical mask, AKA medical mask is a life saver. And yet, these 2 agencies were doing everything in their power to discourage people from wearing face masks for coronavirus protection. To be fair, WHO and CDC are not the only agencies to blame: here is that famous Twitter plea from the U.S. Surgeon General.
Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!
They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!
— U.S. Surgeon General (@Surgeon_General) February 29, 2020
It’s mind-blowing when you analyze what the most authoritative health agencies in the world have been saying about face masks against the backdrop of what we actually know today.
WHO’s and CDC’s war on masks
Just a few days ago before they changed their guidance, WHO kept telling us not to wear masks for coronavirus protection if we didn’t have COVID-19 symptoms. Why? Up to 50% of asymptomatic carriers is not a good enough reason?
There are 2 video clips on the WHO mask page. UPDATE: WHO has removed the videos from their website, but they are still available on Youtube, enjoy (for now).
The spokesperson in the first clip explains:
WHO recommends the use of masks only in specific cases. If you have cough, fever, and difficulty breezing, you should wear a mask and seek medical care. If you do not have these symptoms, you do not have to wear masks because there is no evidence they can protect people who are not sick.
Let’s remember the “no evidence” bit. We’ll get back to that later.
CDC used to say almost exactly the same thing up until they changed their tune sometime around March 20. Then they issued new recommendations.
Do wear masks. But only cloth ones. Oh, and no, they won’t protect you at all, but please be a good Samaritan and protect others.
They are SO. FULL. OF. SH*T! Pardon the vulgarity.
Were CDC and WHO lying?
Yes. And no.
The mantra that face masks don’t protect the general population from germs has a very long history. It’s not only health officials who keep saying that, but physicians as well.
Why? Because it doesn’t seem that anyone cared to check. Remember that “no evidence” bit from the WHO video? Even if it were true, there is an essential distinction between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.
Jumping ahead, it’s simply not true, and the evidence does exist, but first, here is the reason why everyone believes there is “no evidence” in the first place.
Protective effects of face masks have been studied extensively, but usually this involved personal respirators for professionals under idealized conditions, because of specific applications, for instance in military or occupational uses, involving protection of specifically trained personnel. This is different from deployment of masks in the general population during an outbreak of an infectious disease …
In other words, practically all research efforts and funding have always been directed at improving safety measures for the front line workers. It’s understandable, but remember what that Lancet article said: “There is an essential distinction between absence of evidence and evidence of absence.”
The research studied different types of masks, from respirators (N95 in the U.S.) to homemade masks and concluded that:
All types of masks reduced aerosol exposure, relatively stable over time, unaffected by duration of wear or type of activity, but with a high degree of individual variation. Personal respirators were more efficient than surgical masks, which were more efficient than home-made masks.
So much for “no evidence.”
And here is another study that comes to a similar conclusion. There shouldn’t be any doubts anymore that using face masks for coronavirus protection does benefit wearers as well as other people around them.
WHO and CDC statements on using face masks for coronavirus protection are self-contradictory
Here is the second WHO video where another WHO spokesperson gives instructions on how to don surgical masks. Just like the first video, it’s no longer available on the WHO website, but it’s still working here for now.
After reiterating that healthy people shouldn’t wear face masks for coronavirus protection, she comes up with the following.
Masks should only be used by healthcare workers, caretakers and by people who are sick … Why? Because healthcare workers and caretakers are in direct contact with ill individuals, so they’re at higher risk of catching COVID-19.
Whoa, whoa, hold on there. I’m sorry, am I the only one who’s being totally confused?
If a mask won’t help the wearer not to catch the disease, who cares about higher or lower risk? If it doesn’t help – it doesn’t help, right?
CDC, which until mid-March didn’t recommend using masks at all, managed to come up with practically the same recommendations as WHO for healthcare workers.
As part of source control efforts, HCP [Healthcare Personnel] should wear a facemask at all times while they are in the healthcare facility. When available, facemasks are generally preferred over cloth face coverings for HCP as facemasks offer both source control and protection for the wearer against exposure to splashes and sprays of infectious material from others. If there are anticipated shortages of facemasks, facemasks should be prioritized for HCP and then for patients with symptoms of COVID-19 (as supply allows).
“Source control and protection for the wearer.”
To decode: a face mask does protect other people from the wearer and the wearer from other people.
I could rest my case right there, but let’s dig a little deeper.
CDC has clearly been aware of the benefits of face masks for coronavirus protection for both wearers and people who come in contact with them. Why did they not just say so from the get-go?
They also know that face masks are much better in protecting the wearer than cloth masks. Here is an additional quote.
Textile (cloth) covers that are intended to keep the person wearing one from spreading respiratory secretions when talking, sneezing, or coughing. They are not PPE and it is uncertain whether cloth face coverings protect the wearer.
And yet, even after CDC changed their guidelines about masks, they still, to this day, insist that the general public should wear cloth masks. Why? Even the WHO new guidance has finally gone further.
PPE shortage for the front line workers is mostly why
There can be no other reason for this official anti-mask guidelines. What happened in this country at the peak of the pandemic when some front line workers were wearing the same mask for a week or using bandanas to treat critically ill patients was a disgrace. Not something we could’ve ever expected to see in America. Or any non-third-world country, for that matter.
But propagating a lie for the public good doesn’t make it the right or even smart thing to do. What the official CDC mask policies have done is planted more doubt about the competence and truthfulness of our government institutions. The truth is, a lot of people started wearing masks even before the CDC announcement. And others won’t wear masks no matter what, even if their life depended on it, which it very well might. Still, how many people heeded the CDC advice and refrained from wearing masks at the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic?
We’ll never know.
Did the CDC stance on masks help with the PPE shortages?
Not likely. People can see right through omissions and inconsistencies, so what did they do at the time of this generational crisis? They hoarded. Then opportunists of all creeds and sizes realized they had a chance to get rich quick. And this is how a simple surgical mask became the world’s most precious commodity.
As Dr. Zeynep Tufekci wrote in an opinion for the NYT:
… providing top-down guidance with such obvious contradictions backfires exactly because lack of trust is what fuels hoarding and misinformation … And when people feel as though they may not be getting the full truth from the authorities, snake-oil sellers and price gougers have an easier time.
But let’s be honest: would we have avoided the PPE shortage if CDC had been straight with us from the beginning? No. People would’ve still hoarded and price-gougers would’ve taken advantage anyway. However, it’s also likely that more people would’ve donned masks earlier, which would’ve meant fewer infections, fewer deaths, less misery and less stress to our healthcare infrastructure, especially in NYC where the avalanche hit the hardest.
Wear masks. Please!
Whenever there are people around you – please wear masks for coronavirus protection. It’s not only the others you protect, but yourself too. So what if a face mask doesn’t protect you as well as a respirator (95%), it can still protect you 50%-70% of times. It won’t stop aerosols, but it does stop larger droplets. I will take something over nothing any time of the day.
CDC must update their guidelines too. Mask production seems to have ramped up drastically, and face masks are getting cheaper and more widely available, so there are no more reasons to preserve them for healthcare workers. It’s time to finally admit that face masks are the most important tool for the general public to use in combating the coronavirus. (N95 respirators are expensive and almost impossible to wear for a long period of time).
Most importantly, CDC also must admit that face masks do protect the wearer, even if only to a certain degree. This is crucial! As Jack Lang, an Australian politician, once said: “In the race of life, always back self-interest – at least you know it’s trying.”
What do you think about masks? Honestly!