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Scientists Pen Letter Critical Of CDC Policy On Ventilation And Masks

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

The CDC is being criticized by scientists and doctors, some of whom advised the Biden transition team. These experts say the official guidance on masks and how COVID-19 spreads is out of date. The group wrote a letter to administration officials this week saying that inhaling small aerosol particles is a principal way the virus spreads, and they want the CDC to update its guidance around ventilation and masks, especially in high-risk workplace settings. Dr. Celine Gounder is one of the authors of that letter. She was also a member of the Biden-Harris Transition COVID-19 Advisory Board.

Welcome back to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

CELINE GOUNDER: Great to be here, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So your letter says the CDC should recommend higher-quality masks, like N95s, for people who work in meatpacking, transit, corrections facilities. And you say all health care workers, not just those who work closely with COVID-19 patients, should wear N95 respirator masks - all of this as new infections are dropping pretty quickly in the U.S. So explain why you are raising these alarms right now.

GOUNDER: Well, while cases, hospitalizations and deaths are currently dropping, what is on the way is the U.K. variant. It is rapidly becoming the dominant strain, and we anticipate it will be the dominant strain by the end of March and into April. And that's important because this is a much more infectious strain and a more virulent strain. So we anticipate there being another surge.

SHAPIRO: In addition to the more contagious strains, is there new science on the airborne spread of the virus that motivated you and your colleagues to write this letter?

GOUNDER: Well, we've known for some time, really since early last year, that there is airborne transmission of the virus. This is something that can be inhaled through the air. And the CDC unfortunately, I think in large part because of concerns about supply and would there be enough personal protective equipment for health care workers, were reluctant to update their guidelines. We were hopeful that under the new administration, which really is trying to follow the science, that there might be a change of perspective and that some of those guidelines might now be updated.

SHAPIRO: What is the guidance that you would like to see the CDC offer on ventilation in workplaces?

GOUNDER: Well, we'd really like to see the CDC update its guidance to make it clear that measures are needed to reduce the risk of inhalational spread of the virus in the workplace. And this is important because that's what it would allow OSHA, which regulates workplaces - health and safety in workplaces - it would allow OSHA to regulate meatpacking and food processing plants and jails and prisons and all of these other high-risk places to make sure that they have the appropriate combination of ventilation, personal protective equipment, maybe testing to reduce risk in those settings. And OSHA is going to be issuing emergency temporary standards by March 15. So we were really trying to get the CDC to update its guidance in time for OSHA to incorporate those into its new guidelines.

SHAPIRO: Now, for the general public, the CDC recently updated its guidance on masks. Just last week, they said double-masking and adjusting masks to fit more tightly can significantly cut down on airborne spread of the virus. That includes cloth masks, they say. What do you think of that updated guidance for everyday Americans?

GOUNDER: Well, that updated guidance, Ari, is also in light of the rise of these new, more infectious variants. You have more filtration with more than one layer. The bottom layer should be, ideally, a surgical mask. And then the cloth mask on top of that also helps tighten that seal. And I think that's really appropriate level of protection for the general public. They don't need to be wearing N95 masks.

SHAPIRO: So on that point, you think the CDC more or less got it right.

GOUNDER: I do. I do. I think it's the right balance in terms of cost as well as in terms of protection.

SHAPIRO: Dr. Celine Gounder is an infectious disease specialist and epidemiologist at the NYU Grossman School of Medicine and Bellevue Hospital. And she hosts the Epidemic podcast.

Thanks for speaking with us today.

GOUNDER: My pleasure.

SHAPIRO: Also, we reached out to the CDC for comment. They emphasized that they stand by their current guidance, and they say proper fit of masks is a key component to controlling the spread of the coronavirus. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.