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White House task force could soon recommend Americans wear masks

President Donald Trump speaks while flanked by Vice President Mike Pence during the daily coronavirus task force briefing in the Brady Briefing room at the White House on March 31, 2020, in Washington. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

(CNN) — Most members of President Donald Trump’s coronavirus task force have come to agree that Americans should begin wearing face coverings in public and could issue formal guidance on the matter soon, people familiar with the matter said.

Trump signaled he was open to the idea during Tuesday’s White House briefing and members of the task force are working to draft recommendations on how to fashion the coverings to prevent spread of the virus.

“My feeling is, if people want to do it, there’s certainly no harm to it. I would say do it,” Trump said Tuesday. “But use a scarf if you want, you know? Rather than going out and getting a mask or whatever.”

His comments reflect a growing belief by administration officials that more needs to be done to prevent the spread of the virus by infected people who aren’t displaying symptoms. A fabric covering of the nose and mouth could prevent the virus from reaching other people, health experts believe.

Previously, some members of the task force — including Dr. Deborah Birx — cautioned in meetings against recommending Americans wear masks because of a fear it could lull them into a false sense of protection and prevent them from socially distancing.

But new insights into asymptomatic spread of the virus have led to a reconsideration of the guidance.

“Now we’ve learned about this disease — and we’ve always said we’re going to learn more, we’re going to adjust — and we’ve learned there’s a fair amount of asymptomatic spread and so we’ve asked the CDC to take another look at whether or not having more people wear masks will prevent transmission of the disease to other people,” US Surgeon General Dr. Jerome Adams said Wednesday on ABC “Good Morning America.”

Among the issues discussed by the task force and the Centers for Disease Control Prevention have been how to teach Americans to wear masks and how to prevent a rush on medical-grade equipment, like N95 respirators, still in short supply for hospitals.

There have also been discussions of the cultural shift that recommending masks would represent, since Americans (unlike citizens of some Asian countries) are not accustomed to wearing masks in public.

And there has been some consideration of whether or not to call the recommended face coverings “masks.” Some have suggested referring to them simply as “face coverings” or “courtesy masks” to distinguish them from the medical masks needed by professionals.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s top infectious disease specialist, said he would “lean toward” recommending that the general public wear facemasks “if we do not have the problem of taking away masks from the health care workers who need them.”

During a taping for Wednesday’s “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction” podcast, Fauci told CNN’s Dr. Sanjay Gupta that facemasks would be a “subject of conversation” at the White House.

“Particularly now that we’re getting some inklings that there’s transmission of infection from an asymptomatic person who is not coughing, who is not sneezing, who just appears well. Well, then how do you think that’s happening?” Fauci said. “It very well could be aerosol. Maybe not aerosol, you know, that goes on for hours. But even the slight aerosol in which you’re talking to somebody. If that’s the case, we should at least look at the data and try to make a decision about that.”

Despite a lack of conclusive evidence that masks prevent transmission of respiratory diseases, some experts have argued that non-medical fabric masks might make a dent in transmission risk.

Throughout the pandemic thus far, the World Health Organization and US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have advised against the general public’s use of masks unless they are already sick.

“Something doesn’t have to be 100% effective to be beneficial,” Fauci said.

Kellyanne Conway, who serves as White House counselor, reiterated Wednesday that the possibility of CDC guidelines shifting to recommend Americans wear masks is “still hypothetical” but “under active consideration.”

She added: “Please be respectful of the fact that we need to surge those supplies for our health care workers and first responders.”