Letters to the Editor • Opinion
We already know how to prevent pandemics
A sign on a True Value hardware store says protective masks are sold out, in Orinda, Calif., on Feb. 28, 2020. (John G Mabanglo/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock)
Editor`s Note:

When this story was originally published, health officials in the United States were asking people to save masks for front-line healthcare workers amid a shortage in personal protective equipment. With new evidence that showed masks could significantly reduce transmission, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in early April recommended that everyone wear simple cloth face coverings while in public to help control the spread. On July 14, CDC director Robert Redfield wrote in a medical journal that the United States could get the pandemic “under control” in a matter of weeks if everyone wore masks.

The morning after the United States reported its second coronavirus death, health and government officials continued to plead with Americans to stop buying precautionary face masks — unless they are already sick or a health-care worker.

“It’s important for folks to know right now their risk as American citizens remains low,” U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said on “Fox & Friends” on Monday morning. “There are things people can do to stay safe. There are things they shouldn’t be doing. One of the things they shouldn’t be doing, the general public, is going out and buying masks. It actually does not help, and it has not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public.”

Adams said that as a health-care worker, he has to get “fit tested” when wearing protective masks, and those who do not wear the masks properly tend to fidget with them or touch their faces — which “actually can increase the spread of coronavirus.”

How to prepare for coronavirus in the U.S. (Spoiler: Not sick? No need to wear a mask.)

The kind of mask that requires a “fit test” is called an N95 respirator. It should be worn tightly on a person’s face and is meant to protect the wearer by filtering out 95 percent of airborne particles, according to the CDC. The other kind, called a surgical mask, is loose-fitting and is mostly intended to protect the patient or outside world from the wearer’s respiratory emissions. It is not considered to provide respiratory protection for the wearer.

The only people who should be wearing masks are healthy people who are taking care of someone who is sick or sick people who are coughing or sneezing when they are in public, according to the World Health Organization.

Medical face masks are often used during flu season or a virus outbreak. Demand for masks has skyrocketed amid the coronavirus outbreak. (Video: The Washington Post)

“Americans get scared when they feel like they’ve lost control,” Adams said. But there are more effective ways to prevent transmission, such as washing your hands regularly, not touching your face or mouth and staying home from work or school when you are feeling sick.

The surgeon general made the remarks on “Fox & Friends” after a firm and frank tweet over the weekend.

“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” the surgeon general’s account said on Feb. 29. “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!”

A similar message was echoed over the weekend by Vice President Pence, who said that hoarding medical supplies can put health workers at risk.

“If people are going out and buying face masks, that’s not necessary,” Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar said on “Fox News Sunday” with Chris Wallace. “In fact, we need those masks for the people who should be using them, which are health-care workers taking care of patients.”

Despite the abundant pleas to save the masks for medical workers, pharmacies and hardware stores across the country have sold out. CBS News reported last week that Amazon’s mask offerings had largely sold out, and people were trying to sell N95 respirators for inflated costs.

As coronavirus spreads, the CDC has a very thorough guide to optimizing your facial hair for a mask

“There are severe strains on protective equipment around the world,” Michael J. Ryan, executive director of the health emergency program at the World Health Organization, said at a briefing last week. “Our primary concern is to ensure that our front-line health workers are protected and that they have the equipment they need to do their jobs.”

There are limits to how much a mask will prevent infection, he said.

“The most important thing everyone can do is wash your hands, keep your hands away from your face and observe very precise hygiene,” Ryan said.

In an interview with CNN, William Schaffner, a preventive medicine professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine, said the impulse to buy and wear a mask comes down to psychology. “The coronavirus is coming, and we feel rather helpless,” Schaffner said. “By getting masks and wearing them, we move the locus of control somewhat to ourselves.”

Coronavirus: What you need to know

Where do things stand? See the latest covid numbers in the U.S. and across the world. In the U.S., pandemic trends have shifted and now White people are more likely to die from covid than Black people.

The state of public health: Conservative and libertarian forces have defanged much of the nation’s public health system through legislation and litigation as the world staggers into the fourth year of covid.

Grief and the pandemic: A Washington Post reporter covered the coronavirus — and then endured the death of her mother from covid-19. She offers a window into grief and resilience.

Would we shut down again? What will the United States do the next time a deadly virus comes knocking on the door?

Vaccines: The CDC recommends that everyone age 5 and older get an updated covid booster shot. New federal data shows adults who received the updated shots cut their risk of being hospitalized with covid-19 by 50 percent. Here’s guidance on when you should get the omicron booster and how vaccine efficacy could be affected by your prior infections.

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