As early as Jan this year, Dr Dale Fisher who is a senior consultant at the Division of Infectious Diseases in National University Hospital (NUH) as well as WHO’s chair of the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network, told the media that wearing masks would give a false sense of security to people. He is also the group director of medicine at the National University Health System (NUHS).
“Masks, I think by and large, offer a false sense of security in the community,” he said. “I see a lot of people that might have a mask but it might be on their forehead and it might be under their chin.”
People may not know how to wear masks properly, he added. They might touch the masks and then touch their eyes or other parts of their face or shake hands with others, which may cause people to spread respiratory viruses to others.
“I’d like to discourage masks in the community. I think they’re excellent in the healthcare setting where trained people look after sick people,” he said.
In fact, he is deemed such an expert in Singapore that NUS School of Medicine even featured him in a cartoon series on its website meant to educate Singaporeans not to wear masks if one is well:
World opinion shifts in favour of wearing masks
However, as evidence mounts that person with no symptoms can still spread the coronavirus to others, authorities around the world including Singapore are now advising people to wear masks (‘World opinion shifts in favour of masks as virus fight deepens‘,6 Apr).
Early this month, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reversed its long-standing position on face masks telling Americans they should now wear one when they go outside.
In the meantime, WHO continues to recommend that masks are only needed by people displaying COVID-19 symptoms or starting to feel sick. In a recent interview with Al Jazeera news agency, Dr Fisher as a representative of WHO, continues to advise against wearing masks.
One reason is that mask use can easily backfire if mishandled, according to him. He said many mask-wearers may feel a “false sense of security” and can easily end up transferring any virus droplets on the surface of their mask onto their hands or the surfaces in their home when they take off the mask.
“If you wear a mask in the community, the next thing you realise it’s on the table beside you or it will be under your chin when you answer the phone. Distancing and washing these are the ways to stop [the virus],” he said.
However, Jason Wang, a physician and director of Center for Policy, Outcomes and Prevention at Stanford University, disagreed. Dr Wang said that growing evidence about the nature of SARS-CoV-2, the highly-infectious virus associated with COVID-19, suggests masks may be necessary at all times when in social settings.
Some countries like China have already made it mandatory to wear masks in public. In some cultures, like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan masks have long been on a common sight particularly during the northern winter flu season.
While the precise effectiveness of masks is still unknown, a recent study in the highly respected New England Journal of Medicine found that SARS-CoV-2 particles can linger for as long as three hours after they are transmitted.
“What that means is if it stays in the air for more than three hours and if someone coughs with SARS-CoV-2, you can get exposed. This is nothing to be adamant about, this is science. When that happens basically you have to rethink the transmission of this virus,” Dr Wang said.
“Even the US is changing its tune. Now they are saying a mask – wear a cloth mask if you can’t find a medical mask or bandana. In the epidemic when you see new studies and new evidence – and this is a very well done study – then you have to change your practice.”
Indeed, last Fri (3 Apr) in a nationally televised broadcast, PM Lee told everyone that the government will no longer discourage people from wearing face masks, reversing its previous stance that people should not wear masks if they are well.
More government officials, health experts and analysts condemn WHO
Meanwhile, it was reported that President Trump has unleashed a tirade against WHO on Tue (7 Apr), accusing it of acting too slowly to sound the alarm about the coronavirus (‘Trump Slammed the W.H.O. Over Coronavirus. He’s Not Alone.‘).
Trump is not alone. Government officials, health experts and analysts have in recent weeks raised concerns about how the organization has responded to the outbreak.
In Japan, Taro Aso, the deputy prime minister and finance minister, recently noted that some people have started referring to the World Health Organization as the “Chinese Health Organization” because of what he described as its close ties to Beijing.
Taiwanese officials said the WHO ignored its early warnings about the virus because China refuses to allow Taiwan to become a member. Critics said the WHO has been too trusting of the Chinese government, which initially tried to conceal the outbreak in Wuhan. Others have faulted the organization and its leader, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, for moving too slowly in declaring a global health emergency.
In any case, Dr Fisher who also chairs the Global Outbreak Alert and Response Network in WHO is a highly regarded talent in Singapore. He is so well regarded that the Singapore government has put him in charge as Group Director of Medicine at the National University Health System (NUHS), which oversees the National University Hospital, Ng Teng Fong General Hospital, Jurong Community Hospital and Alexandra Hospital.