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In addition to wildly differing estimates of deaths from coronavirus and inconsistent orders, bans, and restrictions from political leaders, the issue of whether or not wearing masks in public is effective for preventing the spread remains totally confused.
The two most quoted health organizations, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) and the World Health Organization (WHO), have not been able to agree on medical evidence showing mandatory wearing of masks would be effective.
The WHO added to what was already a confusing situation by shifting its position last Friday.
After initially stating it had no strong data to support public masks except for those displaying symptoms or at high risk, Dr. Michael Ryan, WHO Executive Director of Health Emergencies Programme, said last Friday, “We can certainly see circumstances on which the use of masks, both home-made and cloth masks, at the community level may help with an overall comprehensive response to this disease.”
This contradicts Dr. Ryan’s statement on 30 March: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any particular benefit – in fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite.”
WHO has issued concerns that the incorrect use of masks by the public could be counterproductive, actually leading to more infections.
The CDC has been a much stronger advocate for masks. On its website, it states:
“CDC is additionally advising the use of simple cloth face coverings to slow the spread of the virus and help people who may have the virus and do not know it from transmitting it to others. Cloth face coverings fashioned from household items or made at home from common materials at low cost can be used as an additional, voluntary public health measure.”
The urging to use homemade masks is to help keep the more secure, professionally manufactured masks available for the health care workers and first responders who are in short supply.
Last Friday, the French Academy of Medicine shifted its position and stated that everyone leaving home be required to wear a mask as long as lockdown orders are in place. Previously, health officials in France had discouraged masks being worn in public except by health workers.
Specifically, the Director of General Health, Jerome Salomon, had warned against wearing masks in public since it gives citizens a false sense of protection and would likely lead to the decline of less effective measures such as washing hands frequently and maintaining social distance.
Asked on Friday specifically to clarify the mixed messages about public masks, Mr. Salomon did not take a definitive position: “In France, as in Europe, we don’t have the tradition of wearing the mask. There is a tradition in Asia… These masks allow you to protect yourself. If there is access to masks, we encourage the public to wear masks if they desire.”
In Germany, last Thursday, the country’s top health disease control agency, the Robert Koch Institute, changed course and recommended Germans use homemade masks in public but did not indicate it would be mandatory. One municipality, Jena, has made wearing masks in public a requirement.
Both the Czech and Slovakian governments have made the wearing of homemade masks mandatory in public.  In Austria, masks are mandatory when in any supermarket, food store, or pharmacy.
In the U.S., last Thursday, at a daily White House coronavirus briefing, Dr. Birx stated that health officials are reviewing data on the effectiveness of wearing face masks in public.
The U.S. Surgeon General, Vice Admiral Jerome Adams, tweeted on 29 February: “Seriously people – STOP BUYING MASKS! They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus.”
At President Trump’s press conference on Saturday, referring to the CDC guidelines recommending the wearing of homemade masks in public, he made his opinion quite clear: “You do not have to do it. I don’t think I’m going to be doing it.”
While there is total confusion regarding the effectiveness of wearing protective masks in public, what is certain is the need for properly made respirator masks for doctors and medical personnel. The mad scramble for them has instigated what the French are calling “guerre des masques,” translated to the “war of the masks.”
Last Friday, Germany accused the Unites States of “modern piracy,” pointing to a shipment of 200,000 respirator masks being shipped to Berlin but diverted en route to the U.S. Andreas Geisel, a senior German official, called out the U.S., stating last Friday, “This is not how you deal with transatlantic partners… even in times of global crisis, no wild west methods should be used.”

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