By ZEKE MILLER and MIKE STOBBE
WASHINGTON (AP) — The Trump administration is formalizing new guidance to recommend that many Americans wear face coverings in an effort to slow the spread of the new coronavirus as the president defends his response to the crisis.
“Because of some recent information that the virus can actually be spread even when people just speak as opposed to coughing and sneezing — the better part of valor is that when you’re out, when you can’t maintain that 6-foot distance, to wear some sort of facial covering,” the top U.S. infectious disease official said Friday on “Fox & Friends.”
But Dr. Anthony Fauci also made clear that the aim is not to “take away from the availability of masks that are needed for the health care providers who are in real and present danger of getting infected from the people that they’re taking care of.”
The recommendations were expected to apply to those who live in areas hard hit by community transmission of the virus that causes COVID-19. A person familiar with the White House coronavirus task force’s discussion said officials would suggest that nonmedical masks, T-shirts or bandannas be used to cover the nose and mouth people go outside — for instance, at the grocery store or pharmacy. Medical-grade masks, particularly short-in-supply N95 masks, would be reserved for those dealing directly with the sick.
The person spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss the proposed guidance before its public release.
President Donald Trump, who was tested again for coronavirus Thursday using a new rapid test, indicated he would support such a recommendation. The White House said Trump’s latest test returned a negative result in 15 minutes and Trump was “healthy and without symptoms.”
Dr. Deborah Birx, the task force’s coordinator, told reporters that the White House was concerned the mask guidance would lead to a “false sense of security” for Americans. She said new data shows the administration’s social-distancing guidelines were not being followed to the extent necessary to keep virus-related deaths to a minimum.
The discussions on face masks came as the White House defended its handling of the pandemic, particularly its efforts to speed the distribution of ventilators and protective equipment needed by medical professionals.
Trump sent a letter to Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer of New York objecting to Schumer’s criticism of the administration’s response. “The Federal Government is merely a back-up for state governments,” Trump wrote. “Unfortunately, your state needed far more of a back-up than most others.”
Trump said states should have done more to stockpile medical supplies.
Vice President Mike Pence also announced Thursday that the White House was considering direct payments to hospitals to cover COVID-19 treatment costs for the uninsured.
The emerging guidance on masks appeared to be more limited than a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention draft that suggested the recommendation apply to nearly all Americans, according to a federal official who has seen the draft but was not authorized to discuss it on the record.
Officials were expected to limit the geographic scope to just those areas where the virus was spreading rapidly, the official said. An announcement was expected as soon as Friday.
Under the previous guidance, only the sick or those at high risk of complications from the respiratory illness were advised to wear masks. The new proposal was driven by research showing that some infections are being spread by people who seem to be healthy.
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia, and death.
On Wednesday, Eric Garcetti, the mayor of Los Angeles, urged his city’s 4 million residents to wear masks when they’re in public. On Thursday, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio followed suit in his city, the epicenter of the virus’ spread in the U.S.
In response to recent studies, the CDC on Wednesday changed how it was defining the risk of infection for Americans. It essentially says anyone may be a considered a carrier, whether that person has symptoms or not.
The virus spreads mostly through droplets from coughs or sneezes, though experts stress that the germ is still not fully understood.
U.S. officials have been telling people to stay at home as much as possible and keep at least 6 feet (2 meters) away from others when they do go out. Other advice includes frequent hand washing and not touching your face.
But until now federal officials have stopped short of telling people to cover their faces out in public.
Scientists can’t rule out that infected people sometimes exhale COVID-19 virus particles, rather than just when coughing or sneezing, but there isn’t enough evidence to show if that can cause infection, according to a committee convened by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine to advise the White House.
The question has to do with whether the new coronavirus spreads mostly by droplets that don’t linger for long in the air or also by tinier aerosolized particles. Certain medical procedures, such as inserting breathing tubes, can create those tiny particles, which is why health care workers wear close-fitting N95 masks during such care.
The World Health Organization on Monday reiterated its advice that the general population doesn’t need to wear masks unless a person is sick. Since the epidemic began in China, the WHO has said masks are for the sick and people caring for them. WHO’s epidemic chief Dr. Mike Ryan noted the risks from an improperly fitted mask or from someone improperly putting it on or taking it off.
Stobbe reported from New York. AP Medical Writer Lauran Neergaard contributed to this report.