Inconsistency in government recommendations causes confusion. Imagine that?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently reversed their recommendations on mask-wearing. Before April 3, the agency’s guidelines told those of us outside of healthcare settings not to wear masks, which were only for people who were sick or caring for people who were sick. Now, the CDC recommends that the general population wear non-medical masks—that is, fabric, like a cut-up shirt or a bandana, that covers the mouth and nose.
This follows multiple messages about why the general public didn’t need masks. US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams, said mask-wearing wouldn’t protect us from contracting the virus; Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said that recommendations not to wear a mask were based on a supply shortage.
The scientific evidence offers lukewarm support to the idea of wearing masks to prevent infection among the general public. One review article concluded that there is “some evidence” to support mask-wearing during illness to protect others, but “fewer data to support the use of masks or respirators to prevent becoming infected.” In another study, college students wore masks on campus during flu season but the practice did not reduce flu-like illness except with hand sanitization.
Recommending the use of homemade masks is even more problematic. Masks made of cloth get very damp and moist, which is a breeding ground for pathogens. If these masks aren’t washed well or often enough, they could increase the risk of infection. A study of the SARS epidemic “suggested double-masking and other practices increased the risk of infection because of moisture, liquid diffusion and pathogen retention.” It is for these reasons that the World Health Organization recommends mask-wearing only for those who are sick or who are caring for sick people. A WHO document from January 2020 states that “cloth masks are not recommended under any circumstance.”
For those using surgical masks, it’s important to know about proper disposal. Surgical masks are intended for single use only. You can find guidelines for disposal here. Not disposing of masks properly can lead to cross contamination.
The lack of a clear message regarding the use of masks demonstrates how unprepared the agencies we depend on to protect the health of our citizenry truly are. Health and Human Services (HHS) is the department that oversees and coordinates the CDC and FDA. As we’ve seen, the CDC has given conflicting recommendations on proper protocols during the pandemic. FDA failures in approving tests for COVID-19 put the US behind in stemming the outbreak.
Additionally, the executive branch’s decision to terminate the entire pandemic response team and not replace them has led to a reactive, rather than proactive, response to this crisis.
Experts have long contended that a catastrophic global pandemic was unavoidable. We knew this was coming yet were completely unprepared to deal with it, and for that the federal government must shoulder much of the blame.