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Face masks: How the Trump administration went from ‘no need’ to ‘put one on’ to fight coronavirus

WASHINGTON — Testifying on Capitol Hill on Feb. 28, Dr. Robert Redfield could not be more clear. “There is no need for these masks in the community,” Dr. Redfield said of the N95 masks that were then becoming the subject of intense focus, with the coronavirus outbreak having arrived on the West Coast of the United States.

“These masks need to be prioritized for health care professionals,” Redfield added. Coming from the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, this pronouncement had the weight of an official directive. So even as images of people in Asian countries wearing masks proliferated, the vast majority of Americans remained mask-free.

Just a little over a month later, the CDC has changed its mind. During Friday’s briefing of the White House coronavirus task force, President Trump said that all Americans should wear some sort of face covering when venturing outside.

That announcement is the culmination at the highest levels of government of debate over a question far less simple than it seems: Does putting something over your face keep you safe from infection?

Trump said on Friday that the guidance was not mandatory and that he would not follow it himself, suggesting that it would be unseemly to don protective gear in the Oval Office. Nor will the federal government provide face masks to Americans who wish to wear one. “Most people could just make something,” he said, “out of a certain material.” He had previously suggested using scarves.

On its coronavirus page, the CDC now recommends that everyone “should wear a cloth face cover when they have to go out in public, for example to the grocery store or to pick up other necessities.” The page also explains that a mask or face covering is not bound to protect the wearer; instead, the mask will protect others in case the wearer is sick. Wearing a mask, then, is less an act of personal protection than of altruism.

The new guidance comes just two days after public health authorities in Singapore published a study about the role of “presymptomatic transmission.” That takes place when a person who has been infected with the coronavirus but not yet showing symptoms of COVID-19 (the disease caused by the coronavirus) continues on with their daily life. In doing so, they could unintentionally spread the virus to many others.

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