Sep 16, 2020 - Health

CDC director suggests face masks offer more COVID-19 protection than vaccine would

CDC director Robert Redfield suggested in a Senate Appropriations subcommittee hearing on Wednesday that face masks are "more guaranteed" to protect against the coronavirus than a vaccine, citing the potential for some people to not become immune to the virus after receiving the shot.

What he's saying: "These face masks are the most important, powerful public health tool we have. And I will continue to appeal for all Americans, all individuals in our country, to embrace these face coverings. I've said if we did it for 6, 8, 10, 12 weeks, we'd bring this pandemic under control," he said.

  • "I might even go so far as to say that this face mask is more guaranteed to protect me against COVID than when I take a COVID vaccine. Because the immunogenicity may be 70%, and if I don't get an immune response, the vaccine's not going to protect me. This face mask will."

The big picture: While face masks are one of the best COVID-19 mitigation strategies we currently have, a vaccine remains the best long-term solution. A number of coronavirus vaccines are now in phase 3 trials, including candidates from Oxford and Moderna that produced immune responses in tests this summer.

  • Wearing face masks "could result in a large reduction in risk of infection," according to a June review of 172 studies looking at the effectiveness of masks in reducing the spread of SARS-CoV-2 and other coronaviruses.
  • Mask mandates in 15 states plus D.C. early in the pandemic may have helped to avert at least 230,000 coronavirus cases by May 22, according to a study published in Health Affairs.

What to watch: Redfield told the subcommittee that he believes there will be a "very limited supply" of a vaccine between November and December, and that "we're probably looking at late second quarter, third quarter of 2021" for widespread distribution.

  • That's in line with comments from NIAID director Anthony Fauci, who has said he believes a coronavirus vaccine will be widely available to the public by late 2020 or early 2021 — allowing the U.S. and other countries to get back to "a degree of normality."
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