Pa.’s Toomey, Colorado lawmaker want CDC to clarify rules to encourage face-mask use in public

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Hoping to further shift the dialogue around wearing face masks in public, two federal lawmakers are calling on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to revise its guidance to encourage people to use masks when they leave their homes.

“My goal is to do whatever we can, within reason, to reduce the rate of transmission of the virus,” U.S. Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa., said in a Wednesday conference call. “… If we don’t reduce the rate of transmission, there’s the risk that our hospitals could be overwhelmed and that would be disastrous.”

Toomey, joined by U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., pointed to successful efforts in other countries, such as the Czech Republic, where mask-wearing has become the norm, and has played a role in reducing the transmission of the coronavirus that causes the disease known as COVID-19.

Through midday Wednesday, health officials had confirmed 5,805 cases of COVID-19 in 60 of Pennsylvania’s 67 counties. As of Tuesday, half of all counties, 33, were under stay-at-home orders.

Toomey has publicly embraced a social media campaign, #Masks4All, which is intended to encourage Americans to wear homemade masks when they go out in public. Both Toomey and Bennet stressed Wednesday that Americans should not try to obtain to obtain the high-grade N95 masks that are badly needed by healthcare professionals and physicians.

The Philadelphia Inquirer, citing the Washington Post, reported Tuesday that the CDC was considering revising its mask-wearing guidelines. Toomey said he’d spoken with officials at the nation’s top public health agency about his mask-wearing campaign. And while the CDC did not officially endorse the effort, nor did it oppose it.

Toomey said he understood why the CDC might be moving with caution, observing that “People listen closely to what the CDC recommends. So I think they are very cautious about what they recommend. I am hopeful they will [change their guidelines] in the very near feature.”

Toomey said he’d also spoken to President Donald Trump about public mask-wearing and he was “sympathetic” to the idea.

“The president didn’t make [a commitment],” Toomey said. “He listened carefully to the arguments. He’s aware there is a growing sentiment that we ought to be encouraging the use of masks out in public … He is very open to this. I think he wants to wait until his team gives a more formal recommendation.”

Toomey also said he’d had similar conversations with Pennsylvania Health Secretary Dr. Rachel Levine.

In briefings, Levine has been sympathetic to the mask-making campaign, but she has stressed that the high-grade, N95 masks are needed by healthcare workers.

Bennet had similar advice, saying that wearing masks should not take the place of staying or practicing safe social-distancing when Americans go out in public to buy groceries, pick up prescriptions, or engage in other limited list of activities allowed under stay-at-home orders.

“The most important thing that all of us can do is stay home and practice social distancing,” Bennet said. “Healthcare workers are putting their lives on the line, and they don’t have nearly enough supplies. It’s unacceptable for anyone in America to hoard N95 masks.”

Bennet acknowledged that some people might feel “awkward” wearing masks out in public when other people aren’t wearing them. But both lawmakers said that sentiment would fall away as mask-wearing becomes more widespread.

“It has to go from where it is socially awkward to wear a mask, to where it is socially awkward to not wear one,” the Colorado Democrat said.

John L. Micek
A 3-decade veteran of the news business, John L. Micek is the Pennsylvania Capital-Star's Editor-in-Chief. An award-winning political reporter, Micek’s career has taken him from small town meetings and Chicago City Hall to Congress and the Pennsylvania Capitol. His weekly column on U.S. politics is syndicated to 800 newspapers nationwide by Cagle Syndicate. He also contributes commentary and analysis to broadcast outlets in the U.S., Canada and the U.K. Micek’s first novel, “Ordinary Angels,” was released in 2019 by Sunbury Press