In a memo to Biden’s top coronavirus advisers obtained by CNN, a dozen health and safety experts — including four members of Biden’s former advisory board — called on the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) to “recommend and require the use of respiratory protection, such as N95 FFRs (filtering facepiece respirators), to protect all workers at high risk of exposure and infection.”
They also urged the CDC to adopt the first national consumer mask standard and urged the administration to “coordinate a national effort” to distribute National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health-certified respirators and ASTM barrier face coverings to workers in need and use the Defense Production Act to ramp up mask production.
The memo, which is addressed to Biden’s coronavirus czar Jeff Zients, CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky and Dr. Anthony Fauci, came just days after the CDC updated its guidance on face masks. The new guidance for the first time heralded the benefits of double-masking, but maintained a recommendation against the use of N95 masks “in non-healthcare settings,” citing a shortage of N95s.
But the memo’s signatories — including former Biden advisers Rick Bright, Dr. Celine Gounder, Dr. David Michaels and Michael Osterholm — say there are now millions of N95 masks “available and sitting in warehouses,” and are urging the administration to go further.
“While COVID-19 infections and deaths have started to decline in recent weeks, they remain at a very high level and, unless strengthened precautionary measures are implemented, the new variants will likely bring an explosion in new infections,” the experts write in the memo. “Action is needed to better protect workers and the public against inhalation exposure to the virus.”
Bright, Gounder, Michaels and Osterholm were part of Biden’s 16-member coronavirus advisory board, which Biden assembled during the transition to advise him on the pandemic and help him craft a response strategy. The board was dissolved once Biden was inaugurated and its three co-chairs joined the administration.
Bright previously headed the Department of Health and Human Services’ biotechnology research arm before becoming a whistleblower in the early months of the Trump administration’s coronavirus response. Michaels is an epidemiologist who headed OSHA in the Obama administration. Gounder and Michaels are both infectious disease experts.
The former Biden advisers were joined in writing the memo by leading public health and occupational safety experts, including Lisa Brosseau, Dr. Lynn Goldman, Dr. Yoshihiro Kawaoka, Linsey Marr, Dr. Donald Milton, Kimberly Prather, Dr. Robert Schooley and Peg Seminario.
In a statement responding to the letter, the CDC touted the effectiveness of “properly worn … well-fitting cloth masks” and pointed to a CDC study showing that “exposure to aerosol particles was reduced by more than 95%” when double-masking or wearing a tightly-fitting surgical mask.
“For reasons supported by science, comfort, costs, and practicality, CDC does not recommend the use of N95 respirators for protection against COVID-19 by the general public,” the CDC said in a statement, though it did not address the question of recommending N95 masks to high-risk workers.
The memo follows a similar letter from some Democratic lawmakers sent on February 1, which called on Biden to increase the supply and availability of higher quality masks and encourage the education of the public on which masks are most effective.
The latest memo urges the administration to follow the example of several European countries like Germany and France, which have mandated the use of N95-style masks and higher-quality masks in workplaces and public places.
The authors also called on the CDC to adopt the first national consumer mask standard to protect American workers and general public established by ASTM, an international technical standards organization. That standard outlines minimum fit, design, performance and testing requirements for consumer face masks and will soon allow the public to be able to choose between two levels of mask protection seen on package labeling.
The letter also asks OSHA to utilize the ASTM standard and offer high-performing face masks with at least 80% filtration efficacy to non-health care workers at lower exposure risks.
While the memo’s authors praised the administration’s coronavirus response plan, the memo is one of the first signs of outside pressure urging the White House to do more amid the threat of new, more transmissible coronavirus variants.
In the memo, the experts urge the administration to rescind recommendations advising healthcare workers not involved in direct patient care and high-risk workers like those in meat plants to only wear face coverings or surgical masks — rather than N95s.
In a nod to Biden’s focus on equity in his coronavirus response, the authors also noted that the risks of transmission are especially acute for people of color.
“The failure to address inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2 continues to put workers and the public at serious risk of infection, particularly people of color, many of whom work on the front lines in essential jobs and have suffered — and continue to suffer — the greatest impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic,” the memo says.