Soon all masked? After hammering that masks are useless against the coronavirus when you are not sick, the official discourse has changed in several countries this week, at the risk of fueling the confusion of the public, even accusations of lying.
The most dramatic flip-flop came from the United States on Friday: President Donald Trump announced that health officials are now advising Americans to cover their faces when they leave their homes.
“There is a real inflection in the United States and the WHO is in the process of revising its recommendations“said Professor KK Cheng, a public health specialist at the University of Birmingham (England), who supports the widespread use of the mask, told AFP.
Since the start of the epidemic, the WHO (World Health Organization) and many governments have reiterated that the masks should only be used by carers, the sick and those close to them, saying that they are based on scientific data. .
But for the promoters of the generalized wearing of the mask, this discourse was above all intended to prevent the general public from rushing on those reserved for caregivers (surgical masks and FFP2, more protective) and aggravates an already existing shortage.
In fact, seen from Asia, where the use of masks is culturally valued, Western reluctance surprised.
“The big mistake in the United States and Europe, in my opinion, is that people don’t wear masks“said the head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, Gao Fu, on March 27 to Science magazine.
In the process, the discourse has evolved almost everywhere in recent days, faced with the growing misunderstandings of the general public and the multiplication of the positions of pro-mask doctors.
The hypothesis “aerosols”
Another factor is the assumption that the coronavirus could be transmitted via expired air (the “aerosols“in scientific jargon).
The object of much speculation, this mode of transmission is not yet scientifically proven.
But we suspect that “the virus can be transmitted when people just talk, rather than just when they sneeze or cough“The highly respected American specialist Anthony Fauci, advisor to Donald Trump, said on Fox News on Friday.
If confirmed, this mode of transmission would explain the high contagiousness of the virus, also transmitted by patients without symptoms.
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It is by integrating this possibility that the American health authorities recommended the wearing of the mask.
Previously, New York had already taken the plunge: Mayor Bill de Blasio asked residents on Thursday to cover their faces when they go out.
“It could be a scarf, something you made, a bandana“, he said.
Because to avoid the rush on medical masks, it is the masks homemade or manufactured by the textile industry which are put forward all over the world.
The scientists who promote them stress that they serve to avoid infecting others more than to protect oneself.
“Many people believe that wearing a mask protects them from contamination, when it actually reduces sources of transmission.“said Professor Cheng to AFP.
“It works if everyone wears it”
“It works if everyone is wearing it, and in this case, a very basic mask is enough, because a piece of fabric can block projections.“contaminated emitted by a patient, he adds.”It’s not perfect, but it’s much better than nothing“.
In Germany, the Robert-Koch Institute, the benchmark establishment in public health, encouraged citizens on Friday to wear homemade masks in public.
There is “no scientific evidence yet“they limit the spread of the virus, but that”seems plausible“, said its president Lothar Wieler.
An opinion shared in France by the Academy of Medicine: it ruled Friday that a mask “General public“should be made compulsory for exits during and after containment.
The French government itself has changed its position by announcing the manufacture of masks “alternative“, other than medical.
“We encourage the general public, if they wish, to wear (…) these alternative masks which are being produced“, said Friday the N.2 of the Ministry of Health, Professor Jérôme Salomon.
On Wednesday, the popular television host Marina Carrère d’Encausse, also a doctor, had assured that the official remarks on the supposed uselessness of the masks could resemble a “lie” fact “for a good cause“, that is, to reserve them for caregivers.
Tutorials for making handcrafted masks are widely circulating on the internet, sometimes from hospitals or learned societies.
The French collective Stop postillons offers them on its site (stop-postillons.fr). Launched by doctors, it speaks “anti-postilion screens“for the general public rather than masks, in order to avoid confusion with the equipment for carers.
Finally, in Eastern Europe, the mask is also popular: it is compulsory in the Czech Republic and Slovenia, and Austria has generalized it in supermarkets.
Even the WHO plans to change its position
For its part, the WHO still sticks to its initial position, fearing that the widespread use of the mask would give a “false sense of security“and make you forget the essential barrier measures (social distancing, hand washing …)
However, her boss, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, conceded on Wednesday that she continued to “assess the potential use of the mask more broadly“.
“The pandemic is evolving, the evidence and our opinions too“, he slipped.
A study published Friday in the journal Nature will give him something to grind: she concludes that wearing surgical masks reduces the amount of coronavirus in the air exhaled by patients (the experiment was made with other coronaviruses than SARS-CoV-2, responsible for the current epidemic).
“This study provides a strong level of evidence in favor of wearing a mask“commented a scientist who did not participate, Dr. Rupert Beale, from the Francis Crick Institute in London.”Public health officials should take note immediately“.