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Former Biden advisers raise concern about mask recommendations, urge wider use of N95s

The group warned that as more transmissible variants of the coronavirus spread, new infections could mushroom if stronger mask guidelines aren't put in place.
Robert Economu, 54, of Fayetteville, WVa. verifies
People get Covid-19 vaccinations at the Charleston Convention Center in Charleston, W.Va., on Saturday.Stephen Zenner / SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

WASHINGTON — A group of public health experts, including several who advised Joe Biden on Covid-19 during the presidential transition, is urging the administration to enact stronger mask requirements to protect workers as a growing number of allies raise concerns about the new administration's response to the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter sent late Tuesday to the administration's top public health officials, the group said that current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines on masks don't go far enough and that all health care workers and those at high risk of getting infected should wear medical-grade N95 masks or similar respirators rather than standard surgical masks or cloth face coverings.

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"Stronger protective measures are needed immediately to limit exposure and transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to control and end the COVID-19 pandemic," the group wrote. "Action is needed to better protect workers and the public against inhalation exposure to the virus."

Since it took office just under a month ago, the Biden administration has ramped up federal involvement in combatting the pandemic, issued new guidelines about mask use and strengthened its messaging around wearing masks, including public service announcements. But while new infections have tumbled in recent weeks, the health experts warned in their letter that as more transmissible variants of the virus spread, the U.S. could have another explosion in new infections if stronger mask guidelines aren't put in place.

A number of Biden allies have begun publicly raising concerns about aspects of the administration's pandemic response. A bipartisan group of governors sent a letter Monday saying better coordination is needed between the federal government and states in distributing doses of the vaccines. Local teachers unions have also been at odds with Biden's push to reopen schools, with some wanting all teachers to be vaccinated before they return to classrooms, which the CDC didn't recommend in new guidelines last week.

The CDC recommends that N95 masks, which filter out at least 95 percent of very small particles, be used only by health care workers in direct contact with Covid-19 patients. In the CDC's most recent guidelines about face coverings, released last week, the agency said it "does not recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 in non-healthcare settings."

CDC director Rochelle Walensky reiterated the agencies position that N95 masks not be worn by the public during a press conference Wednesday.

"For reasons supported by science, comfort, cost and practicality, the CDC does not recommend routine use of N95 respirators for protection against Covid-19 by the general public," Walensky said. "Abundant scientific laboratory data, epidemiological investigations and large population level analysis demonstrate that masks now available to the general public are effective and are working."

Federal agencies have said the general public shouldn't wear those masks to ensure that there is enough supply for health care workers and medical first responders.

That's in contrast with some European countries, which last month began recommending against simply wearing cloth face coverings. Germany now requires that people wear medical masks similar to KN95s or N95s in stores and on public transit. France said people should wear surgical masks in public rather than cloth face coverings. The former Biden advisers urged the U.S. to enact similar requirements.

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Among the Biden transition advisers who signed on to the letter are David Michaels, former administrator of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, or OSHA; Dr. Celine Gounder, an infectious disease specialist at NYU School of Medicine; Michael Osterholm, head of the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy at the University of Minnesota; and Richard Bright, former director of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority, who filed a whistleblower complaint against the Trump administration.

"CDC and OSHA must recommend and require the use of respiratory protection," the letter said, adding that masks like N95s should be used "to protect all workers at high risk of exposure and infection."

While supply shortages have been an issue in the past, the group cited media reports saying millions of N95 masks are sitting in warehouses with employers reluctant to buy them because they don't believe they are necessary. The group also called on the Biden administration to use the Defense Production Act, as it has with supplies for vaccinations, to ramp up production of N95s, plastic reusable respirators and other medical-grade face coverings.

"Existing supplies of respirators need to be made available, and used now, not allowed to sit in warehouses and in supply rooms," the group wrote.