Walensky says CDC mask recommendation will not change

Rochelle Walensky, the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said Wednesday that it does not plan to change its mask guidance to advise Americans to wear higher quality masks amid the omicron surge.

The CDC director said during a White House briefing that her agency currently recommends that “any mask is better than no mask” to battle the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

The guidance does not advise Americans to wear a specific kind of mask, such as a medical-grade KN95 or N95 instead of a cloth mask, although Walensky said the CDC plans to update its website to help Americans choose their face covering.

“We do encourage all Americans to wear a well-fitting mask to protect themselves and prevent the spread of COVID 19,” she said. “And the recommendation is not going to change.”

Walensky acknowledged that the CDC’s website is “in need of updating right now” to include information on the “different levels of protection different masks provide,” including the improved filtration of KN95 and N95 masks.

“We want to provide Americans with the best and most updated information to choose what mask is going to be right for them,” she said.

“What I will say is the best mask that you can that you wear is the one that you will wear and the one you can keep on all day long that you can tolerate in public indoor settings and tolerate where you need to wear it,” the CDC director added.

Earlier in the briefing, White House coronavirus coordinator Jeff Zients said the White House is “strongly considering options” to improve accessibility to high quality masks for all Americans.

“We’ll continue to follow the science here. The CDC is in the lead,” he said. “But … this is an area that we’re actively exploring”

The briefing came a day after The Washington Post reported that the CDC was examining whether to recommend higher quality masks for Americans that provide better filtration as the omicron variant has sparked skyrocketing COVID-19 cases. 

Several experts have advised people to wear higher quality masks to reduce the spread of the highly transmissible strain, including Leana Wen, an emergency physician and public health professor at George Washington University.

“Cloth masks are little more than facial decorations and should not be considered an acceptable form of face covering,” she tweeted in December. “The US should require (& distribute) medical-grade surgical masks to be worn in crowded indoor spaces.”

The CDC’s current guidelines call for people who are not fully vaccinated to wear masks in public indoor settings. The recommendation extends to fully vaccinated individuals in areas that have substantial or high COVID-19 transmission, which includes 99.5 percent, all but 14, of U.S. counties. 

Amid the omicron surge, the seven-day U.S. caseload has reached about 751,000 per day in a 47 percent increase from the previous week, Walensky said during the briefing. In slightly smaller increases, hospital admissions are nearing 20,000 per day, and deaths have climbed to nearly 1,600 daily. 

But the CDC director also cited a preprint study finding patients infected with omicron had a “substantially reduced risk” of severe outcomes than patients who contracted the delta variant.

Tags CDC CDC recommendations Centers for Disease Control and Prevention COVID-19 Jeff Zients KN95 masks Masks N95 N95 masks omicron Rochelle Walensky

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