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Updated CDC guidance shows masks protect the wearer and others

A sign reads "Wear Your Mask At All Times" as fans walk by during the game between the Miami Dolphins and the Seattle Seahawks at Hard Rock Stadium on Oct. 4, 2020, in Miami Gardens, Florida. (Photo by Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) released updated guidance Tuesday recommending community use of masks to prevent transmission of COVID-19.

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“Masks are primarily intended to reduce the emission of virus-laden droplets (‘source control’), which is especially relevant for asymptomatic or presymptomatic infected wearers who feel well and may be unaware of their infectiousness to others, and who are estimated to account for more than 50% of transmissions,” according to the CDC.

Masks have been a topic of controversy as early in the pandemic they were not thought to have much of an impact in reducing the spread of the virus, and instead people were told to reserve them for health care and frontline workers. Since then, guidance from national and local doctors has changed, and many states or counties — including Washington — have some form of a mask mandate.

In Washington, masks are required to be worn by everyone in public spaces and shared spaces, both indoors and outdoors. A proclamation from Governor Jay Inslee also prohibits businesses from allowing customers to enter without face coverings.

The CDC guidance now matches what has been generally accepted by doctors and the public for some months now, adding that “individual prevention benefit increases with increasing number of people using masks consistently and correctly.”

“Studies demonstrate that cloth mask materials can also reduce wearers’ exposure to infectious droplets through filtration,” the CDC reports.

Dr. Jeff Duchin, Health Officer for Public Health — Seattle & King County calls the CDC update “significant” as it states that mask use protects not only others, but also the wearer.

Duchin adds that masks do not complete protection against COVID-19 and “MUST be part of a layered strategy with limiting number, duration, and proximity of contacts with others, avoiding poorly ventilated spaces/improving ventilation, hand hygiene,” and more.

Columbia virologist Dr. Angela Rasmussen, weekly guest of KIRO Radio’s Gee & Ursula Show, wrote on Twitter that the updated guidance from the CDC is “notable for what it says about our national character.”

Rasmussen points out that the primary function of cloth or surgical masks is source control, and “the primary benefit they offer is to others.”

“It says a lot about our priorities that the CDC has to issue guidance appealing directly to individual’s self-interest to overcome the resistance to employing easy-to-implement, safe public health measures,” she said.

“To me, this also says a lot about how deeply divided we are as a nation,” Rasmussen added. “If we can’t convince millions of Americans that they should wear masks for the benefit to others, rather than benefit to themselves, it suggests that we no longer value being one nation, indivisible.”

She also recognizes that she and other medical professions were on the fence about masks early in the pandemic, but the data changed her mind months ago.

Rasmussen says, at the end of the day, she hopes the guidance encourages more people to wear masks.

The CDC adds in the conclusion of its report that “adopting universal masking policies can help avert future lockdowns, especially if combined with other non-pharmaceutical interventions such as social distancing, hand hygiene, and adequate ventilation.”

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