Did the US Surgeon General Recommend the Public Not Wear Masks?

Jerome Adams' comments from early 2020 were re-shared and went viral months after he changed his opinion about the benefit of wearing COVID-19 protective masks.

  • Published 13 May 2020

Claim

U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams has said that the general public should not wear or buy masks to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease.

Rating

What's True

In public statements in early 2020, the surgeon general had recommended against the general public buying or wearing masks.

What's False

However, in light of new evidence from the CDC, he changed his views and has since argued in favor of people wearing cloth facial coverings in public settings.

Origin

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U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams made comments in February and March 2020 recommending people not wear masks to help protect against the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease, and those comments began to recirculate online in April and May. As of April, though, Adams had changed his views in accordance with evolving recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and, to a lesser extent, from the World Health Organization (WHO). 

On May 7, one Facebook post from Ohio State Rep. Nino Vitale’s Facebook account shared a Newsmax article that included Adams’ past comments. That post was re-shared  more than 700 times, along with the hashtags #EndMedicalDictatorship #FreedomAndLiberty:

On Feb. 29, 2020, Adams tweeted: 

Then in an interview with “Fox & Friends” on March 2 he said:

One of the things [the general public] shouldn’t be doing is going out and buying masks … It has not been proven to be effective in preventing the spread of coronavirus amongst the general public … Folks who don’t know how to wear them properly tend to touch their faces a lot, and actually can increase the spread of coronavirus. You can increase your risk of getting it by wearing a mask if you are not a healthcare provider.

In the same interview, he added that people should clean their hands frequently and stay at home when sick, while maintaining that he was “convinced” more people would die from the flu than from the coronavirus around the world. 

In another interview with “Fox & Friends,” on March 31, he added that “the data doesn’t show” that wearing masks in public will help people. He said:

What the World Health Organization [WHO] and the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have reaffirmed in the last few days is that they do not recommend the general public wear masks.

… On an individual level, there was a study in 2015 looking at medical students and medical students wearing surgical masks touch their face on average 23 times … We know a major way that you can get respiratory diseases like coronavirus is by touching a surface and then touching your face, so wearing a mask improperly can actually increase your risk of getting disease.

His recommendation corresponded with advice from the WHO in late March and early April, which stated that a person should only wear a mask if taking care of someone with COVID-19 (or a suspected case) or if exhibiting COVID-19 symptoms, like coughing or sneezing. These masks are also only effective, according to the WHO, if combined with regular hand-washing and the avoidance of touching one’s face. 

Adams also said that wearing masks “can also give you a false sense of security.” He added, “You see many of these pictures with people out and about closer than 6 feet to each other, but still wearing a mask.” This corresponded with advice given by both the CDC and the WHO that masks should be worn in addition to other measures, like social distancing. 

One reason Adams initially discouraged the general public from wearing masks: saving critical supplies like N95 respirators for healthcare providers to use. He acknowledged advice on the use of “cotton masks” could eventually change, but the data did not yet support that. He echoed the point he made in his earlier tweet to Fox News on March 31: 

We still have PPE [Personal protective equipment] shortages across the country … The WHO mentioned this in their statement, so we want to make sure we are reserving PPE for the people who most need it. That’s how you are going to get the largest effect because if healthcare workers get sick, they can’t take care of you when you get sick.

In a White House press briefing on April 3, Adams changed his recommendation after he said he had received new guidance from the CDC. Echoing his earlier statements, he said:  

… I want people to understand that the CDC, the World Health Organization, my office, and most public health and health organizations and professionals originally recommended against the general public wearing masks, because based on the best evidence available at the time, it was not deemed that that would have a significant impact on whether or not a healthy person wearing a mask would contract COVID-19.

We have always recommended that symptomatic people wear a mask, because if you’re coughing, if you have a fever, if you’re symptomatic, you could transmit disease to other people.

He followed this up with a clear recommendation that the general public should wear cloth masks outside of their homes in specific settings: 

… We now know from recent studies that a significant portion of individuals with coronavirus lack symptoms. They’re what we call asymptomatic. And that even those who eventually become pre-symptomatic, meaning that they will develop symptoms in the future, can transmit the virus to others before they show symptoms. This means that the virus can spread between people interacting in close proximity: for example, coughing, speaking, or sneezing, even if those people were not exhibiting symptoms.

In light of this new evidence, CDC recommends and the [COVID-19] task force recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social-distancing measures are difficult to maintain. These include places like grocery stores and pharmacies. We especially recommend this in areas of significant community-based transmission. It is critical.

… The cloth face coverings recommended are not surgical masks or N95 respirators. Those are critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders, as recommended by the current CDC guidance.

On April 3, he also appeared in a CDC video “How To Make Your Own Face Covering.”

We should note that the WHO’s interim guidelines remain ambivalent on the benefits of non-medical masks. The agency is still researching the effectiveness of such masks, even though the CDC now recommends wearing cloth face coverings in public. It is safe to assume that these recommendations will evolve once more data is available.  

In short, Adams’ changing statements have generally aligned with CDC guidelines. The more recent posts on social media omitted these changes, choosing instead to focus on statements he made a few months before. Adams again reaffirmed his view on masks via Twitter on May 13. 

Because his recommendation changed over time largely based on information from the CDC, we rate the truth of this claim “Mixture,” keeping in mind that Adams now recommends the general public use cloth masks along with maintaining other safety measures.