As health care workers face shortages of medical-grade masks, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is weighing whether to advise the public to use face coverings or homemade masks in an attempt to prevent transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19.

CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield told a National Public Radio affiliate that the government body was “looking at new data” on whether these kinds of masks offer valuable protection to individuals or those around them, particularly with regard to asymptomatic spread. The CDC did not respond to a Seattle Times request for comment.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County, addressed the issue in a news conference Monday, saying that wearing medical-grade masks is not recommended for the public, but that he didn’t see harm in using something homemade.

“There might be a theoretical benefit to having a mask on, which would decrease any potential for droplets to go through the air and infect someone else, even in the absence of coughing or sneezing because even when we speak, you know, small droplets are expelled,” Duchin said.

However, Duchin said it was important to ensure that public use of masks did not subtract from supplies needed by medical personnel.

“We wouldn’t want to do anything that would decrease the supply of masks to those people who are taking risks every day to protect all of us,” he said.

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Medical masks, when worn and used properly, have demonstrated efficacy, said Jared Baeten, an infectious-disease physician and epidemiologist at the University of Washington.

But with homemade masks or other face coverings, “the science here is limited,” Baeten said, adding that “the data that supports everyone wearing a mask to prevent transmission isn’t as strong as it could be.”

Baeten said there is no danger in wearing a mask, provided people continue to follow the distancing and hygiene guidelines public health officials have been preaching now for weeks.

“Wearing a mask is not a shield,” Baeten said. “It doesn’t substitute for physical distancing everyone needs to be doing. It doesn’t substitute for washing your hands. It doesn’t substitute for keeping track of where your hands are.”

Baeten said he believes organizations like the World Health Organization and the CDC have held off on suggesting people wear masks because supplies are so constrained for health care workers.

Some medical supplies, including N95 respirator masks that provide high levels of protection, are in such short supply that large companies and wealthy individuals have been donating them to the state’s hospitals. The state has received hundreds of thousands of medical-grade surgical masks from a federal stockpile, too.

“Where masks are absolutely needed and absolutely proven to be effective is where someone is sick or someone is caring for someone who is sick,” Baeten said. “What cannot happen is that mask supplies be diverted from those critically important situations.”

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Baeten’s concern about supplies for medical workers is easily illustrated, as many Washington state hospitals seek to conserve items like surgical masks and respirators amid worries of a possible surge of COVID-19 patients.

UW Medicine has told health care workers in its emergency departments to avoid wearing surgical masks into many patients’ rooms, said Alexander Adami, a UW Medicine resident.

“They’re saying don’t wear them into rooms where there’s not suspicions someone has COVID-19,” Adami said. “Before COVID-19, in the emergency department in flu season, it’s pretty common for everyone down there to wear a mask at all times.”

After staffers noted that a Massachusetts health care system is requiring all employees to be masked at all times, UW Medicine responded to concerns about its masking policies last week.

“Universal masking consumes an unnecessary amount of PPE [personal protective equipment] and provides a false sense of security that can undermine hand and face hygiene, social distancing, and source control of symptomatic patients for the delivery of safe health care by staff,” read a message to staff.

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“Uniform masking may also unintentionally decrease our ability to have the appropriate PPE available when caring for patients with COVID-19 during the coming weeks.”

Last Tuesday, an instruction sheet given to nurses performing screenings at Virginia Mason Hospital read: “We are NOT giving masks to anyone. If a person is symptomatic, give them a napkin.”

Masks were not available to employees performing screenings, either, said a registered nurse at Virginia Mason, who wanted to remain anonymous over fear of reprisal.

The hospital is now providing masks for symptomatic patients and the directive was “a temporary memo to the nursing staff while we assessed our supply of masks,” said Gale Robinette, a spokesperson for the Virginia Mason system, adding that “the memo was rescinded in a few hours.”

The nurse said news that the CDC was weighing whether to recommend the public use of masks felt like a “confusing and out-of-left-field recommendation,” when health care workers’ supply of personal protective equipment remains unstable and when questions remain about the efficacy of nonmedical masks.

Seattle Times staff reporter Hal Bernton contributed to this story. 

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