Scientists push Biden administration to require N95 masks in high-risk workplaces

A traveler wearing a face mask is seen at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in Arlington, Virginia on February 2, 2021.

Ting Shen | Xinhua News Agency | Getty Images

More than a dozen top scientists are calling on the Biden administration to demand N95 air filter masks for employees in high-risk workplaces such as meat packers and prisons.

The 13 scientists, including several who advised President Joe Biden during the transition on the pandemic, urged the government to acknowledge that the virus is more in the air than previously thought, especially with the emergence of more contagious variants. The highly effective masks filter out around 95% of all small particles.

The group, which includes David Michaels, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who headed the Occupational Safety and Health Agency under President Barack Obama, also called on OSHA to issue new standards that require improved ventilation in high-risk workplaces.

“The guidelines and recommendations of the CDC do not contain the control measures that are necessary to protect the public and workers from inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2,” wrote the authors in a letter sent to the Covid-19 response coordinator on Monday White House, Jeff Zients, was sent. The letter was also sent to Dr. Rochelle Walensky, Director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and to Dr. Anthony Fauci, the White House chief physician, was sent.

“Failure to address inhalation exposure to SARS-CoV-2 continues to place workers and the public at serious risk of infection,” the authors continued. “People of color, many of whom are frontline jobs in important jobs, have suffered – and continue to suffer – the greatest impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Federal and international health authorities, including the World Health Organization, have been slow to recognize evidence that the coronavirus can spread efficiently through the air. Only in the summer did the WHO admit that air spread cannot be ruled out after more than 200 scientists asked the agency to do so.

For its part, the CDC has apparently recognized the importance of airborne preventive measures in recent weeks, such as tight-fitting masks for the public. On Friday, the CDC issued a guide on how to reopen new schools, but only addressed the importance of ventilation, saying schools should open windows and doors whenever possible. Some doctors said it should have highlighted the importance of portable air filters or improved HVAC systems in schools.

In the letter sent on Monday, the group of scientists outlined the evidence of airborne spread of the virus, pointing to other countries, such as Germany and France, which have mandated higher quality masks for workers and recommended improved indoor ventilation. They said the current guidelines from the CDC and other agencies are “out of date” and need to be updated urgently as new, more contagious variants threaten.

CDC spokesman Jason McDonald said in a statement that the agency stands by its current masking recommendations. However, he admitted that “there is evidence that we have room for improvement”.

He said that well-fitting surgical or cloth masks are appropriate for general use and that the CDC is working to “increase the acceptance of masking, ensure that masks are used consistently and correctly, and that masks fit the face well when worn”.

“For reasons backed by science, convenience, cost, and practicality, CDC does not recommend the use of N95 respirators to protect the public against COVID-19,” he said. McDonald did not address whether N95 masks should be worn in high-risk workplaces where documented outbreaks such as meat packers have occurred.

The scientists said the CDC and OSHA should mandate the use of N95 masks in risky workplaces. Currently, the CDC is recommending less effective surgical masks to most healthcare workers due to the lack of N95 masks. But the scientists said there is now an increased supply of N95 masks and it is time for CDC and OSHA to mandate their use in hazardous environments where workers could be exposed to coronavirus aerosols.

On his first full day in office, Biden directed OSHA to issue emergency standards for Covid-19 by March 15, which should include rules for ventilation and masks.

“Immediately stronger protective measures are needed to limit the exposure and transmission of the SARS-CoV-2 virus to combat and end the COVID-19 pandemic,” the scientists wrote to the administration. “Measures are needed to better protect workers and the public from being inhaled by the virus.”

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