WHO Calls for Masks as Virus Precautions Ease Globally

A paramedic takes a blood sample from a front-line ambulance worker during an antibody testing program operated Friday by the West Midlands Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust in Birmingham, U.K. (Simon Dawson/Bloomberg via AP)

(CN) — People in places where the novel virus is spreading widely should cover their faces, the World Health Organization said Friday, revising its guidance as many nations lift lockdowns while still reporting new cases.

Especially in cases where a person is infected by either not yet showing symptoms or asymptomatic, WHO said donning a mask can help prevent such people from spreading the virus to others.

“They are mainly aimed at preventing one person from giving the disease to somebody else,” Dr. Michael Ryan, the WHO head of emergencies, said during a briefing this afternoon. “Wearing a mask at the community level is more about protecting others if you happen to be infected rather than protecting yourself; so it is an altruistic act.” 

The global health agency’s advice comes as many countries around the world are lifting lockdowns because they are seeing declines in new cases of infection. But balancing the need to lift lockdowns while also taking steps to contain the virus is proving tricky. 

Mask wearing, hand cleaning, avoiding crowded places and maintaining a physical distance are among the measures recommended by public health officials. In countries that are past the worst of their outbreaks, however, it is becoming increasingly common for people to ignore those precautions.

The push to open borders in Europe will prove to be a major test. On Friday, European Union officials said they want to see the restrictions on travel within the bloc lifted by the end of June. They don’t foresee letting travelers from outside the EU to be allowed in before July. 

European Union Home Affairs Commissioner Ylva Johansson said Europe’s Center for Disease Prevention and Control believes that confinement, social distancing and other health measures are working. 

“Physical distancing and other health-related measures are still needed, of course,” Johansson said. “But health authorities are clear that there is no longer a clear justification for either travel restrictions or border measures.”

Around the world, wearing a mask has become ubiquitous, and the WHO’s advice confirms what many experts and the general public have long recognized. 

After the coronavirus outbreak took off in Europe in March, the WHO repeatedly advised against the public rushing out to buy medical masks, saying protective gear should be reserved for health workers. Nonetheless, demand for masks skyrocketed, and wearing a mask became a common practice shortly after Italy discovered the first outbreak in Europe in late February. Across Europe it is now obligatory to wear a mask upon entering stores, offices and public transportation. 

“In light of evolving evidence, WHO advises that governments should encourage the general public to wear masks where there is widespread transmission and physical distancing is difficult, such as on public transport, in shops or in other confined or crowded environments,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the WHO director-general, said during Friday’s briefing. 

The agency gave its blessing to hand-made masks but stressed that they should be constructed using three layers made from such materials as cotton, polypropylene and polyester to absorb, filter and block virus-carrying droplets emitted from a person. 

He said the agency also advises people over the age of 60 and those with underlying health conditions to take extra precautions by wearing medical masks when physical distancing is not possible. 

Still, WHO experts stressed that masks are of limited value in the fight against Covid-19, the respiratory disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

“Masks on their own will not protect you from Covid-19,” Tedros said. “Masks can also create a false sense of security leading people to neglect measures such as hand hygiene and physical distancing.” 

The WHO said people are at risk of infecting themselves by repeatedly adjusting their masks if their hands are contaminated with the virus.

The agency emphasized that people who are sick should seek medical care and avoid contact with others. 

Tedros said the most effective method for fighting the outbreak is carrying out a comprehensive public health strategy. 

“The cornerstone of the response in every country must be to find, isolate, test and care for every case; and to trace and quarantine every contact,” Tedros said. “That’s what we know works. That’s every country’s best defense against Covid-19.”

Globally, the pandemic continues to show few signs of abating. Worldwide, the death toll stood at more than 393,380 on Friday, according to Johns Hopkins University. The global death count is on pace to reach 400,000 by the end of the weekend with more than 3,000 new deaths reported each day. 

The United Kingdom on Friday became the second nation after the United States to report more than 40,000 deaths, making it by far the worst-hit nation in Europe. For weeks, the U.K.’s death rate from the virus has been the world’s worst — it stood at 14.1% on Friday, while America’s rate is 5.8%.

The epidemic also has lasted longer in the U.K. than in Europe’s other hard-hit countries and the outbreak remains far from over with more than 400 new patients admitted each day to hospitals suffering from Covid-19. At the peak, the U.K. reported 3,100 hospital admissions related to Covid-19. 

The British government is under fire for delaying a nationwide lockdown and making a number of mistakes during its response. At the beginning of the outbreak, top government scientists said they hoped the death toll would be less than 20,000. 

“Most of these deaths were entirely avoidable,” said Dr. Gabriel Scally, the president of epidemiology at the Royal Society of Medicine, on Sky News television. “I think it was late action, late awareness, a lack of interest about what was going on around the world and not listening to the advice of WHO and the European Center for Prevention and Disease Control.” 

Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.

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