CDC Guidance Reiterates Importance of Cloth Face Masks

Nancy Cleeland By Nancy Cleeland July 6, 2020
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​As COVID-19 cases continue to surge in some states, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reiterated the importance of wearing cloth face masks to contain the virus, noting that doing so is most likely to be effective when masks are "widely used by people in public settings."

In an update posted June 28, the CDC explained more forcefully than in the past that its face-covering recommendations are based on science and supported by emerging studies. "Cloth face coverings are recommended as a simple barrier to help prevent respiratory droplets from traveling into the air and onto other people when the person wearing the cloth face covering coughs, sneezes, talks or raises their voice. This is called source control," the agency wrote.

"This recommendation is based on what we know about the role respiratory droplets play in the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19, paired with emerging evidence from clinical and laboratory studies that show cloth face coverings reduce the spray of droplets when worn over the nose and mouth. COVID-19 spreads mainly among people who are in close contact with one another (within about 6 feet), so the use of cloth face coverings is particularly important in settings where people are close to each other or where social distancing is difficult to maintain."

However, children younger than age 2, anyone who has trouble breathing and anyone who is unable to remove the face covering without assistance should not wear one, it added.

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Face shields might protect the wearer from airborne droplets but should not be used as a substitute for cloth face coverings, the CDC said, because it's unknown whether the shields provide any benefit as source control. "Some people may choose to use a face shield when sustained close contact with other people is expected," the agency wrote. If used without a mask, such a shield "should wrap around the sides of the wearer's face and extend to below the chin."

While encouraging employees to wear masks, the agency also offered examples of when they might not be appropriate or necessary. "Individuals who work in a setting where cloth face coverings may increase the risk of heat-related illness or cause safety concerns due to introduction of a hazard (for instance, straps getting caught in machinery) may consult with an occupational safety and health professional to determine the appropriate face covering for their setting. Outdoor workers may prioritize use of cloth face coverings when in close contact with other people, like during group travel or shift meetings, and remove face coverings when social distancing is possible."

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Attorney Kara Friedman, a Chicago-based shareholder in Polsinelli's Health Care Services practice group, said the new CDC guidance builds on evolving knowledge of how the virus spreads and how effective face masks are in stopping it.

The CDC recommendations align with those from the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), which "generally recommends that employers encourage workers to wear face coverings at work" to protect others working nearby and allow discretion to make exceptions in specific circumstances. However, OSHA's page still recommends face shields as a substitute for masks.

A growing number of states require face masks at work when social distancing is not possible, while others leave the decision to employers. Friedman said she advises all employers to require face masks at work, even without a mandate. If they do not, she said, "people are going to accuse their employer of exposing them to the virus."

More on this topic from SHRM:

New OSHA Guidance Clarifies Return-to-Work Expectations

Masks On? What Employers Need to Know About Face Coverings at Work 

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