CDC Urges Universal Mask Wearing for First Time

Alicia Ault

December 07, 2020

Editor's note: Find the latest COVID-19 news and guidance in Medscape's Coronavirus Resource Center.

As the United States faces a worsening surge of SARS-CoV-2 infections, hospitalizations, and deaths, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has, for the first time during the almost year-long pandemic, urged Americans to wear face masks universally.

The recommendation — published on December 4 in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report — was highlighted as the first of 10 key strategies to mitigate the spread of the virus and to restore the American economy and community life.

President-elect Joe Biden has said he will urge Americans to wear masks for 100 days.

On December 3, the United States hit all-time highs for new infections (more than 200,000), hospitalizations (at more than 100,000), and deaths (2800), according to the Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center.

The CDC said it expected that colder weather, more time spent indoors, and asymptomatic spread would continue to fuel high-level transmission, necessitating implementation of "all evidence-based public health strategies at both the individual and community levels."

Mask wearing is a critical part of that strategy, "particularly in light of estimates that approximately one half of new infections are transmitted by persons who have no symptoms." The CDC went on to say that "compelling evidence now supports the benefits of cloth face masks for both source control (to protect others) and, to a lesser extent, protection of the wearer."

The agency urged people in the community to use nonvalved, multilayer cloth masks or nonmedical disposable masks to help preserve N95 masks for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.

Wearing a mask both indoors and outdoors is essential when physical distance of 6 feet or more is not possible, said the agency. Masks should be used in individuals' own homes when a household member is infected or has recently been possibly exposed to the virus.

The CDC urged communities to develop a plan to distribute masks to specific populations, such as those who might experience barriers to access.

Other Strategies

The agency also reiterated the evidence supporting the following mitigation strategies, which it recommends to help reduce the surge:

  • Maintaining physical distance from other people and limiting in-person contacts

  • Avoiding nonessential indoor spaces and crowded outdoor spaces

  • Increasing testing to rapidly identify and isolate infected persons

  • Promptly identifying, quarantining, and testing close contacts of people known to have COVID-19

  • Safeguarding those people most at risk for severe illness or death from infection with SARS-CoV-2

  • Protecting essential workers by providing of adequate personal protective equipment and safe work practices

  • Postponing travel

  • Increasing room air ventilation and enhancing hand hygiene and environmental disinfection

  • Achieving widespread availability and high community coverage with effective COVID-19 vaccines

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