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In a U-turn, US surgeon general asks CDC to see if face masks can prevent coronavirus spread after all

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams had initially advised against the general public wearing face masks.

Sam Meredith, CNBC, Apr 2, 2020

America's top doctor appears to have softened his stance over the effectiveness of face masks when it comes to preventing the spread of the coronavirus.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams had initially advised against the general public wearing face masks, saying they were "not effective" in preventing people from contracting COVID-19 and amplified the risk of health-care providers being unable to get them.

"Seriously people - STOP BUYING MASKS!" Adams said via Twitter on Feb. 29.

"They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can't get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!" he added.

However, Adams told NBC's "TODAY" show on Wednesday that he has now asked the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to investigate whether this recommendation should change.

He explained the advice to avoid wearing masks had been based on the "best available evidence at the time" but "we now know there is a significant amount of asymptomatic spread."

Adams also underlined three key points when it comes to wearing face masks, advising people to avoid touching their face, to save the N95 masks for health-care workers who need them and to continue following social distancing guidelines.

WHO's advice on when to wear a mask

To date, more than 938,000 people worldwide have contracted the coronavirus, with 47,273 deaths, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.

The U.S., which has the most confirmed infections of any country worldwide, has reported over 216,000 cases of the coronavirus, with 5,137 deaths.

Earlier this week, President Donald Trump warned of a "very, very painful two weeks" as the White House said it now projects the pandemic could claim the lives of between 100,000 to 240,000 Americans.

The WHO states on its website that "if you are healthy, you only need to wear a mask if you are taking care of a person with suspected 2019-nCoV infection."

The United Nations health agency added masks were "effective only when used in combination with frequent hand-cleaning with alcohol-based hand rub or soap and water."

David Heymann, who led WHO's infectious disease unit at the time of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003, said at a Chatham House briefing Wednesday that the WHO was also due to reconsider its guidance on wearing face masks following new evidence from Hong Kong, according to The Guardian.

The evidence was provided to the WHO confidentially, Heymann said, but it was likely to be made publicly available in due course.

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