New CDC Guidance Calls for Universal Mask Mandates to Protect Wearers, Others from COVID-19

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After months of urging the public to wear masks and facial coverings to help stop infected people from spreading COVID-19, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) now states in newly released guidance that masks also protected the mask wearer from being infected.

This is perhaps the strongest endorsement the agency has made about masks to date. In the guidance report, the CDC adds the adoption of universal masking policies can help prevent future lockdowns “especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation."

The SARS-CoV-2 virus, the cause of COVID-19, spreads via respiratory droplets in the air. These respiratory droplets are especially virile when ejected into the air after a person coughs, sneezes, talks and even breathes.

Masks are designed to reduce the number of droplets in the air. Many health agencies, scientists and researchers indicate that masks can help cut down on the number of droplets expelled in the air from asymptomatic or presymptomatic people who otherwise feel fine but unknowingly pose a risk to others around them. According to the CDC, these people account for over 50% of all SARS-CoV-2 transmissions.

In spite of this new guidance, there appears to be some incongruencies in the scientific community about beliefs concerning the protection masks can offer for wearers themselves. In a recent interview with the Associated Press, Jiaxing Huang, a professor of materials science and engineering at Northwestern University says no mask can completely protect the wearer, “but almost any mask can help to protect others around the wearers.”

In April, the CDC first recommended widespread mask usage in an effort to protect other people from the person wearing the mask. If all people wore masks, the CDC said, then everyone would be protected.

Defiance of advice to wear masks may be one reason why infection rates in the U.S. exceeds that of many other nations, according to some health experts. Currently, there are more than 10 million active COVID-19 infections in the U.S., but some governors across the country are still holding out on releasing a mask mandate.

Universal masking policies are heavily recommended in the new CDC report. Some experts believe these universal masking policies not only has implications for public health, but also the economy. An analysis by Goldman Sachs found that an increase in universal masking by approximately 15% may reduce the need for lockdowns. This universal masking policy could, according to Goldman Sachs, minimize the risk of additional losses of $1 trillion, or 5% of gross domestic product. 

While the CDC cites seven different studies in their guidance that have confirmed a benefit with universal masking, the agency notes that data concerning the real-world impact of these policies on the community are limited due to many studies’ observational and epidemiological designs.

From the very beginning of the pandemic, arguments have been made to suggest some masks are better than others for stopping the spread of COVID-19. Masks made of cloth, for instance, have been claimed to relatively useless, at least compared with N95 masks. Despite these arguments, the CDC guidance cites studies suggesting cloth mask materials may reduce a mask wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through “filtration of fine droplets and particles less than 10 microns."

But additional research is required to identify the most optimal material combinations that can improve cloth’s block and filtering efficacy, the agency says. Several studies have concluded, however, that multiple layers of cloth that contain higher thread counts are much better at block transmission than single-layered cloths with low thread counts. Higher-thread-count masks may filter nearly 50% of fine particles less than 1 micron, whereas an N95 mask protects down to 0.1 microns. For comparison, the SARS-CoV-2 virus is approximately 0.12 microns.

Debate has also been focused on the effectiveness of masks that contain antiviral coating. While the design makes sense, there currently lacks sufficient evidence from independent studies to determine whether antiviral-coated masks protect wearers or prevent spread of the virus better than other masks. A popular option for masks coated with antiviral materials are ones coated with copper, with these masks available on the market now. While no conclusive data support their superiority over other types of masks, they may still offer protection as long as they are worn properly.

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