Facing an expected surge in local coronavirus cases, Boston Mayor Marty Walsh says all residents should begin covering their faces when leaving home.
But not necessarily with a mask.
“The covering can be a scarf, bandana, or any other type cloth,” Walsh said during a press conference Sunday, proceeding to put on a locally crafted cotton mask.
The new advisory comes amid a reversal in the federal government’s guidance on wearing masks in public. During the early days of the COVID-19 outbreak in the United States, experts somewhat confusingly railed that masks were both ineffective and counterproductive due to the worldwide shortage of personal protective equipment for health care workers. The country’s top health official even tweeted emphatically that the general public should not buy masks.
“STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome Adams said in late February. “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!”
To a large degree, that advice still holds true. Adams noted at the time that the best ways to slow the spread of the disease were washing one’s hands and staying at home, and the shortage of PPE is still a problem.
However, public health officials have increasingly begun to stress the distinction between protective, medical-grade masks needed by emergency responders and the type of cloth face coverings that residents can make at home. And as experts have learned more about the coronavirus, they say the latter could also play a crucial role in the limiting its spread.
While the federal government has always recommended people who are sick wear a face covering, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention expanded that guidance Friday to all Americans, citing new data that up to 25 percent of people with COVID-19 may not show symptoms.
“What has changed in our recommendation?” Adams said during a press briefing Friday night. “We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms. They’re what we call asymptomatic. And that even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning that they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms.”
Adams said that coughing, sneezing, and even speaking were ways that people without symptoms were potentially spreading COVID-19 through respiratory droplets. In light of that knowledge, he said face coverings are “critical” — in addition to maintaining six feet of social distance — to wear when going out for essential errands or exercise.
Adams even released a video over the weekend demonstrating how to make a face covering out of something as basic as a T-shirt.
Still, as Walsh noted Sunday, such face covers won’t — and aren’t meant to — “protect you from infection.” The Boston mayor reiterated that physical distancing and good hygiene remain the best defense for most Americans, while the masks that do protect individuals from contracting the disease — which among other types of protective gear are in dangerously short supply — should go to those who need them most.
“It’s important that we preserve medical-grade masks for health care workers and direct responders, but we can all help slow the spread by covering our faces,” Walsh said.
The CDC specifically notes that the face coverings recommended “are not surgical masks or N-95 respirators.” Ahead of the anticipated surge in COVID-19 cases, the agency says those supplies “must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders,” who are being strained by the shortage.
“Healthy, asymptomatic people should be prohibited from wearing N-95s while strolling around their neighborhood,” a group of health care providers wrote in a recent letter. “If they are sick, then they should stay home; if they are healthy, then they are wasting a scarce resource.”
In a recent opinion piece in Commonwealth magazine, state Sen. William Brownsberger noted that Massachusetts is “nowhere close to having professional grade equipment for all 7 million Massachusetts citizens,” even if that could be the ostensible goal.
“It would be a safety improvement for everyone on the street to be wearing professional grade masks, “Brownsberger wrote. “Maybe in a few months, as American manufacturing ramps up, we can get to that place.”
For now, however, the Belmont Democrat said he supported the federal guidance to wear a simple cloth or bandana to limit the degree that Americans who are feeling fine unwittingly spread the disease, even if they don’t necessarily offer any personal protection.
“This is all about me protecting you, and you protecting me,” Adams said Friday. “This is about us coming together as communities.”