People should continue to wear masks in public, WHO officials say

Regional officials at the World Health Organization on Wednesday urged everyone to continue wearing face masks in public to reduce coronavirus infection, even though local authorities no longer require their use.

“The use of masks is still recommended,” said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, Director of Health Emergencies at the Pan American Health Organization, the WHO Regional Division for the Western Hemisphere.

Masks have been shown to be extremely effective in reducing the transmission of the virus when used properly, said Dr. Ugarte in a conference call with journalists and other WHO officials.

“It’s a measure that still continues to be very relevant and complementary to other initiatives,” such as social distancing, hand washing and proper indoor ventilation, he said. “Our general advice is that the public should wear a non-medical mask indoors or in an outdoor setting where physical distance of at least one meter cannot be maintained.”

A number of countries have recently dropped mask requirements, including the United States, where a federal mask mandate for public transportation was dropped by a judge on Monday, although the Biden administration is appealing.

“In terms of travelers and air travel, we know that the use of masks has dramatically reduced transmission during travel,” said Dr. Ugarte when asked about the verdict that annulled the mandate in the United States. He expressed concern that people may be stigmatized for choosing to wear masks when they are no longer needed.

Mask wearing should only be voluntary in countries where there is virtually no transmission in the community, and only when accompanied by increased testing and vaccination, he said.

“We have seen that in some countries the use of masks has been reduced to voluntary levels, and at the same time they have reduced the detection of cases,” said Dr. Ugarte. “We can not fail our guard.”

While many countries in America have achieved fairly high vaccination rates, some are still far behind, PAHO officials said. Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the agency, noted that Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala and Paraguay, among others, had not yet vaccinated half of their populations, allowing the virus to continue taking a deadly toll.

“In some countries, Covid has become the leading cause of maternal death,” said Dr. Etienne. “These deaths can be avoided.”

Elsewhere in the world:

  • WHO Eastern Mediterranean officials, which includes more than 20 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and Southwest Asia, said Wednesday that vaccination rates in the region were too low, with only about 40 percent of the population fully vaccinated. Although new cases and coronavirus-related deaths have been declining, transmission remains high, making it risky to cut back on testing and monitoring, as some countries in the region have done, said Ahmed Al-Mandhari, WHO’s regional director, at a news conference . The Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca over the summer and the FIFA World Cup tournament in Qatar in the winter will bring huge crowds of visitors to the region, and “of course, when you bring a large number of people together, you worry about increased transmission of the disease.” said Richard Brennan, WHO Region Director of Health Emergencies.

Emma Bubola contributed with reporting.

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