The muddled messages on face masks

A friend called the other day to let me know that she’d heard a hardware store in downtown Chicago had N95 masks in stock. They were selling them two for $19.95.

I tried to persuade her not to rush out and buy them. Sitting on my high horse, I recited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, which state that only people who have COVID-19 symptoms or are caring for a sick person should wear them.

Furthermore, the masks were ridiculously overpriced. Before the pandemic, they were selling three for $6.99 on the company’s website.

“It’s ridiculous to walk around wearing a mask if you don’t need one,” I said in my most authoritative voice. “In fact, the hardware store should be donating those masks to the hospitals that are facing a shortage.”
Before I could barely get off the phone, reports were coming in that the CDC is thinking about revising its guidelines. It appears that now, wearing a mask might be a good idea for everyone who has to go outside.
Several weeks into the coronavirus crisis, some of us still aren’t exactly sure what we should or shouldn’t be doing. It’s hard to keep up with all the edicts coming from so many different sources — the city, the state and the federal government.

The White House’s message on masks has been particularly confusing. We’re hearing horror stories about nurses having to use masks multiple times because there aren’t enough of them available to follow the normal protocol.

We are worried sick that our health care workers on the front lines aren’t getting the supplies they need to keep themselves safe. Every day, there’s a new report about a nurse or doctor getting exposed to the virus.

Certainly, no one wants to make it tougher on our health workers. But it is going to be hard to get people not to hoard masks if the government says they might save your life.

The CDC, the U.S. surgeon general and the World Health Organization started out on the same page regarding whether ordinary people should be walking around in masks. For weeks, they urged only people who are sick and coughing to wear them.

On March 2, U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams’ tweeted this:

“Seriously people — STOP BUYING MASKS!

“They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if health care providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”

While the WHO recently reiterated its stance, the White House and the CDC have begun to reverse course.
Appearing on “Good Morning America” Wednesday, Adams said the Trump administration had asked the CDC to review its guidance on wearing masks, adding that the earlier edict was based on “the best available science at the time.”

“We’ve learned there’s a fair amount of asymptomatic spread, and so we’ve asked the CDC to take another look at whether or not having more people wear masks will prevent transmission of the disease to other people,” Adams said.

He warned people not to stockpile the N95s. Leave those for the health professionals.

For that reason, I can’t see myself walking around wearing one — even if I managed to miraculously find them available on Amazon.

I checked, by the way, and the N95s I saw noted that they were only available for hospitals and government agencies responding to COVID-19. The disposable paper masks are on back order to the end of May or mid-June.

Donald Trump suggested that people might want to use scarves to cover their mouth and nose in the meantime.
“A lot of people have scarves, and you can use a scarf,” Trump said last Tuesday. “And my feeling is if people want to do it, there’s certainly no harm to it.”

This is one of only a few things on which he and I somewhat agree.

Far be it from me to criticize anyone for doing whatever he or she feels is necessary to ward off this deadly virus. If someone feels like placing a bandanna over their mouth while grocery shopping will keep them healthy, then go for it.

Lots of people are keeping busy these days creating homemade cloth masks to give to friends or donate to transit drivers, delivery people, store clerks and others who risk exposure in order to supply us with the things we need.

But masks shouldn’t give us the false sense of security that we can just go back to normal. As the weather warms up, more and more people will be tempted to get out and about. The surgeon general warned that masks aren’t a substitute for social distancing.

Dahleen Glanton is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.