U.S. health officials consider face masks for Americans to slow coronavirus, but 'not there yet'

By Doina Chiacu

By Doina Chiacu

WASHINGTON, March 31 (Reuters) - U.S. health officials said on Tuesday they are discussing whether to recommend that the general public wear face masks as a way to prevent transmission of the new coronavirus, but that it was too soon to take that step.

The wide use of masks outside the healthcare setting, which has been employed in other countries with some success, is under active consideration by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and the White House coronavirus task force will discuss it on Tuesday, said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation's top infectious disease expert.

"The thing that has inhibited that bit is to make sure that we don't take away the supply of masks from the healthcare workers who need them," Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, said on CNN.

The coronavirus outbreak in the United States has prompted more Americans to don surgical or other cotton masks or even makeshift masks when they leave home to buy groceries or get some exercise.

Meanwhile, healthcare workers across the country are facing acute shortages of personal protective equipment including N95 respirator masks and surgical masks as they treat an onslaught of highly contagious patients.

When the country gets into a situation where there are enough masks, Fauci said, there will be very serious consideration of broadening the recommendation on face masks.

"We're not there yet, but I think we're coming close to some determination, because if in fact a person who may or may not be infected wants to prevent infecting someone else, one of the best ways to do that is with a mask," Fauci said.

The consideration of wider use of masks stems from the likelihood that people who have no idea they are infected are spreading the virus because they either have no symptoms or have not begun to experience symptoms.

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams cautioned that wearing surgical-type cotton masks may not protect healthy Americans from contracting coronavirus and may even put them more at risk, since people who wear masks were likely to touch their face to make adjustments.

"Wearing a mask improperly can actually increase your risk of getting disease. It can also give you a false sense of security," Adams told Fox News.

The CDC is looking at data involving the cotton masks, Adams said.

"The data doesn't show that it helps individuals," he said. "If you're sick, wear a mask. If you have a mask and it makes you feel better then by all means wear it. But know that the more you touch your face the more you put yourself at risk. "There may be a day when we change our recommendations - particularly for areas that have large spread going on - about wearing cotton masks," Adams said. "But again, the data's not there yet."

The idea is being pushed by some health experts, including Scott Gottlieb, a former commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

In a pandemic roadmap for the conservative American Enterprise Institute think tank, Gottlieb advocated that the public "initially be asked to wear fabric nonmedical face masks while in the community to reduce their risk of asymptomatic spread."

President Donald Trump said at the White House coronavirus briefing on Monday, "it's certainly something we could discuss."

"After we get back into gear, people could - I could see something like that happening for a period of time, but I would hope it would be a very limited period of time," Trump said. (Reporting by Doina Chiacu Editing by Bill Berkrot)