Coronavirus: Face covers, not surgical masks, recommended across Bay Area; health officials urge people to choose cloth material

SAN JOSE, Calif. (KGO) -- The case is growing stronger that Americans should wear face covers when they venture outdoors. On Thursday, Bay Area public health officials recommended the use of cloth face covers. Specifically, a layer of protection that is very different from the necessary N-95 masks desperately needed by medical professionals.

"The reason why the conversation's coming up now, and why the CDC may revise their guidelines is we're getting more and more evidence that people can spread this when they're asymptomatic- have no symptoms at all," Dr. Alok Patel told ABC7 News. "Or even a couple days before they develop the actual infection."

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The World Health Organization maintains only people who are sick, or are taking care of someone who is ill, should wear masks.

At a recent press briefing, President Donald Trump said new guidelines would stop short of requiring that all Americans wear a cloth face cover.

"You can use something else over your face. It doesn't have to be a mask," President Trump said. "But it's not a bad idea, at least for a period of time."

"Regardless of what the final recommendation about public mask use is, it's almost like we're in a war-time effort," Dr. Patel said. "We have to make sure we're conserving those N95s for the front line medical providers, for people in the hospital that are directly dealing with patients."

Patel said when considering a face mask, "cloth" is the keyword.

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Medical experts worry we run the risk of a public panic, and can potentially find people hoarding medical-grade masks, keeping N-95s and other supplies from health care workers who desperately need them.

"If the public starts to get a different sense of what they need to do, and they think they should be wearing medical grade masks, that's where the big risk is," Patel said.

On Thursday, President Trump invoked the Defense Production Act for 3M to produce additional N-95 face masks and other equipment meant for medical professionals.

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"You just have to remember, for every N-95 the public is using, that's one less N-95 on the front line," he said. "And that's one potential life at risk- whether that be a healthcare provider's life, or a patient's life."

In hard-hit Santa Clara County, resident Anita Quiroz has already made a habit out of wearing a mask in public.

"At least two weeks now," she said. "And why? Because I believe the germs are in the air- and why would I breathe them in?"

Several Bay Area counties released their recommendations on Thursday.

All releases pointed to recommendations by Bay Area health officials that, "Residents cover their nose and mouth when leaving home for essential activities, such as grocery shopping, doctor appointments, and going to the bank."

The recommendation follows guidance recently issued by the California Department of Public Health.

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County officials remind the public, "Face coverings should not be medical masks or other similar products but include any type of breathable material that will cover nose and mouth."

It is well-documented that medical-grade masks are in short supply and need to be reserved for health care personnel.

Santa Clara County Officials said bandannas and home-sewn fabric coverings are examples of recommended covers.

"Medical masks, such as N-95 and surgical masks, are strongly discouraged for general use. Due to the global demand for personal protective equipment (PPE), there is a severe shortage of PPE across the state," the release read.

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Santa Clara County Public Health asks residents to refrain from purchasing PPE for their own use and to utilize homemade face coverings instead.

"Wearing a face covering is an additional strategy to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19. We know that a person can spread the virus before they develop symptoms, or even if they never develop symptoms," Dr. Sara Cody, Santa Clara County Health Officer and Public Health Director said. "Face coverings are not a substitute for sheltering in place, frequent hand-washing, and social distancing, but they do provide an additional layer of prevention when engaging in essential activities."

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