Trump considers Australian expat’s push for US mask-wearing to curb COVID-19 spread
The Australian government’s official coronavirus advice states: “There is little evidence that widespread use of surgical masks in healthy people prevents transmission in public.”
That view has been challenged by Jeremy Howard, a Melbourne-raised research scientist at the University of San Francisco who has become one of America’s leading champions of universal mask-wearing.
Howard published a widely-read opinion article in The Washington Post on March 28 calling on all Americans to wear store-bought or homemade face masks when outside their home and has popularised the social media hashtag #Masks4All.
“It’s hard to explain just how fast the debate is moving here,” Howard told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
“When my article came out in The Washington Post on Saturday it was into a void – there was no mainstream discussion of this at all.
“Today I am briefing a bipartisan group of US senators and staffers on the issue and talking to international policy experts at Yale University. I was on Good Morning America yesterday telling people how to make masks. This has completely taken over my life.”
Howard’s data research institute fast.ai found 34 scientific papers indicating that even rudimentary masks can be effective in reducing virus transmission in public – and none showing clear evidence that they do not.
He said masks are particularly useful in helping asymptomatic carriers from spreading COVID-19, as long as they wash their mask after use and practise good hygiene.
“When historians tally up the many misstep policymakers have made in response to the coronavirus pandemic, the senseless and unscientific push for the general public to avoid wearing masks should be near the top,” he wrote in The Post.
Howard is a former chief executive of Elitic, a company that uses machine learning to improve medical diagnostics, and former president of Google subsidiary Kaggle, the world’s largest community of data scientists.
Howard, who moved from Australia to the US seven years ago, said Australia could reduce the need for extreme social distancing measures by following the approach of countries such as South Korea and Mongolia.
The key elements of the approach are: rigorous testing, contact tracing, quarantine of potentially-infected people and universal mask-wearing.
“Australia should look to the folks in East Asia and copy what they are doing,” he said.
“Although mask-wearing has not been a part of the culture in Australia, I think it could resonate with the Aussie spirit of looking after your mates.”
A handful of European countries, including the Czech Republic and Slovakia, now require their citizens to wear masks when in public.
Fauci said on Tuesday (Wednesday AEDT) that there was “very active consideration” at the White House about recommending the community use of facial coverings to help prevent the spread of the virus.
“If, in fact, a person who may or may not be infected wants to prevent infecting somebody else, one of the best ways to do that is with a mask, so perhaps that’s the best way to go,” he said.
In recent days Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Michael Bennet have endorsed the #Masks4All movement and urged their constituents to wear home-made masks.
Gao Fu, the director general of Chinese Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, recently said: “The big mistake in the US and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks.
“Droplets play a very important role – you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth.”
Howard said authorities had been correct to urge ordinary citizens not to buy surgical-grade masks, such as the N-95 respirator, that should be reserved for medical practitioners. But he said this had led them to downplay the value of more basic face coverings for the general public.
In early March US Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted: “Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” and told a Fox News interviewer: “You can increase your risk of getting [the virus] by wearing a mask if you are not a health care provider.”
Adams said people who do not know how to use masks properly tend to touch their faces a lot, which can lead to an increased spread of the virus.
Matthew Knott is North America correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.