WHO backs broader public use of masks

WHILE stressing that health workers should have priority in getting medical masks, the World Health Organization has opened the door to greater public use of homemade masks or other mouth coverings as a way to reduce the spread of the coronavirus disease.

A senior WHO official said there was some possibility of airborne transmission of the virus that has now infected over 1 million people and killed 50,000 people worldwide since emerging in China last December.

But the main driver of the pandemic was still believed to be sick people with symptoms who were coughing and sneezing and contaminating surfaces or other people.

“We must preserve medical surgical respirator masks for our frontline workers. But the idea of using respiratory coverings or mouth coverings to prevent coughing or sneezing projecting disease into the environment and towards others ... that in itself is not a bad idea," Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s top emergencies expert said.

Ryan acknowledged a “very important and healthy debate” on the wearing of masks, adding that if used, masks should be part of a comprehensive strategy and would not negate the need for handwashing and social distancing.

“So we can certainly see circumstances in which the use of masks, both homemade or cloth masks, at community level may help in an overall comprehensive response to this disease,” he said.

Last Friday, Dr. Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease who is the top US infectious disease official, also said that Americans should cover their face if they have to go in public, but they should still stay isolated as much as possible.