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White House expected to urge Americans to wear face coverings in public to slow spread of coronavirus

Cecily Habimana, the owner of Sew Creative Lounge in Mount Ranier, MD, makes cotton face masks. Habimana has been selling masks to the public and also donating them to health care providers the Prince George's Hospital Center. (Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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The White House is poised to urge Americans to wear cloth masks or face coverings in public to help prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, in a reversal of earlier advice.

President Trump said Thursday at a coronavirus task force briefing that “a recommendation is coming out,” but “I don’t think it will be mandatory. If people want to wear them, they can.” Vice President Pence, who heads the task force, confirmed new guidance would be released in “coming days.”

Later, however, a White House official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to relate internal discussions, said that the guidance being considered is “narrowly targeted to areas with high community transmission” and that the matter remains under discussion.

White House coronavirus task force officials have been considering whether to recommend that face coverings be routinely worn in public because of increasing evidence that infected people without symptoms can spread the virus, according to internal memos and new guidance provided to the White House by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

“In light of these new data, along with evidence of widespread transmission in communities across the country, CDC recommends the community use of cloth masks as an additional public health measure people can take to prevent the spread of virus to those around them,” according to the guidance, a copy of which was obtained by The Washington Post.

According to the CDC and World Health Organization, only the sick, and their caretakers, should wear face masks. Research scientist Jeremy Howard disagrees. (Video: The Washington Post)

The recommendations represent a major change in CDC guidance that healthy people don’t need masks or face coverings. The memos and guidance make clear the coverings under discussion are not medical masks, such as N95 respirators or surgical face masks, which are needed by front-line health-care workers and are in extremely short supply. Those must continue to be reserved for health-care workers and other first responders, they say.

The memos and guidance were drafted in recent days by the CDC and sent to officials at the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House coronavirus task force for consideration of masks as an additional measure to slow the pandemic.

Simple cloth masks that cover the mouth and nose can prevent virus transmission from people who are infected but have no symptoms when they must go into public settings, such as grocery stores, the guidance states. It makes clear the cloth covering is not intended to protect the wearer but to prevent the spread of the virus from the wearer to others.

It noted the face coverings could be made at home at a low cost.

They should not be used on children under age 2 or anyone who has trouble breathing or is unconscious, incapacitated or otherwise unable to remove the cover without assistance, the guidance states.

Deborah Birx, the White House coronavirus response coordinator, cautioned at Thursday’s briefing that people should not get a false sense of security from wearing masks. She emphasized they are no substitute for social distancing and frequent hand-washing. People need to continue to stay at least six feet away from other people, she said.

CDC considering recommending general public wear face coverings in public

Separately, U.S. officials are weighing a plan to distribute reusable cloth face masks — not medical masks — to U.S. households, starting with locations hardest hit by covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, according to a federal official involved in the response and documents shared with The Post.

Earlier this week, CDC Director Robert Redfield confirmed in an interview with NPR that the agency was reviewing its guidelines because of new data showing transmission from people who are infected but show no symptoms. He said the guidance on mask wearing was “being critically re-reviewed, to see if there’s potential additional value for individuals that are infected or individuals that may be asymptomatically infected.”

The World Health Organization, which has not recommended masks for the general public, is also reconsidering its guidance, officials said.

Mayor Eric Garcetti of Los Angeles on Wednesday urged all residents to wear homemade, nonmedical face coverings, or even bandannas, when food shopping or doing other essential errands, after health officials in Riverside County, Calif., made a similar recommendation on Tuesday.

The CDC’s memos have noted that widespread public use of masks is not culturally accepted in the United States the way it is in many Asian countries, where face coverings helped reduce the spread of the virus.

Wearing cloth masks in public would be an additional community mitigation tool, according to the memos. One memo drafted Thursday noted that people “generate respiratory aerosols when speaking, coughing and sneezing” that can be inhaled by nearby individuals.

A CDC report last week on asymptomatic infections among residents at a nursing facility in the Seattle area found that of 23 residents who tested positive for the novel coronavirus, 13 were asymptomatic or pre-symptomatic on the day of testing.

Infectious-disease experts say asymptomatic transmission may be playing a larger role in the outbreak than previously thought, but just how big remains unknown. Studies are underway at the CDC and elsewhere to better understand such transmission.