What is the CDC waiting for on workplace masking?

Masks work to prevent the spread of COVID-19, something we’ve known since early last year back when masking got caught up in the culture war despite the best attempts of many. Almost any mask will help — but not all masks work equally well and early shortages of high-grade, N-95 masks led to considerable confusion on this topic with leading figures like Anthony Fauci engaging in “noble lies” to discourage a run on these products.

With case rates down from the winter high and supplies of N-95 masks growing, our public health establishment still hasn’t adapted by adjusting its policies on use of N-95 masks. A recent letter from epidemiologists, doctors, and even a Department of Health and Human Services whistleblower, called on the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) to further revise masking recommendations and encourage broader use of N-95 masks among health care workers and, importantly, workers in non-health care settings in an effort to reduce infections among healthcare personnel as well as individuals working in the meatpacking and agriculture sectors.

Registered nurse Dana Simmers’ glasses fog up as she dons a 3M N95 protective mask before beginning her shift at a drive-thru testing site inside the Bismarck Event Center as the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak continues in Bismarck, North Dakota, U.S., October 26, 2020. REUTERS/Bing Guan

In April of last year, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the CDC issued joint guidance for meatpacking and food-processing workers that didn’t mention masks. Despite the Biden administration’s declaration that they would follow the science, the CDC’s most recent guidance for meat and poultry processing workers, issued on February 6, 2021, left N-95 masks as optional. The most recent CDC guidance for healthcare workers advises the usage of N-95 masks only for those caring for COVID patients. OSHA’s guidance for all workers merely requests cloth face coverings despite continued high levels of community transmission. At best, this looks like indifference. And in the case of heavily minority agricultural, food sector workers and other “essential workers,” it looks worse than that.

Just like earlier in the pandemic, the CDC and OSHA should issue joint guidance so other executive agencies can move forward with regulations that would encourage and require the use of N-95 in settings where there is elevated risk of infection. Failing to do so only serves to prolong the pandemic and expose workers and their families to illness and death.