Epidemiologists continue to scrutinize a White House event after more than a dozen people, including President Donald Trump and White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany, announced they tested positive for COVID-19.
Several of them attended a ceremony held outside in the Rose Garden on Sept. 26 where Trump announced his Supreme Court nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, in front of more than 180 people.
The suspected “super spreader” event highlights the importance of wearing a mask and social distancing, even when outside. But some health officials, including leading infectious disease expert Dr. Anthony Fauci, say they don’t always wear a mask outside.
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So, when is it appropriate to take it off?
In an interview with Rhode Island Gov. Gina Raimondo, Fauci said you can take your mask off outdoors if you’re around people you live with and there is no one else in the immediate vicinity.
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease director said on his daily 4-mile walk, he typically wears his mask around his neck and puts it on over his mouth when he sees someone coming.
Dr. Lewis Nelson, professor and chair of emergency medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School, says mask wearing outside depends on one’s ability to social distance. If you’re more than 6 feet away from someone outside, then it’s generally safer to take your mask off.
Outdoors is safer than indoors, but it’s never totally safe, he said. Especially when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in its COVID-19 Pandemic Planning Scenarios estimates about 40% of people who have COVID-19 are asymptomatic.
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“Asymptomatic spread is very real, which is why you can’t feel that comfortable in an environment where people aren’t sick,’” Nelson said.
Dr. Sunil Sood, infectious diseases specialist at Northwell Health’s South Shore University Hospital in Bay Shore, New York, says the rules of “mask-on, mask off” also apply when dining outside.
“It is tiresome… (but) you just have to do that,” he said. “The only time you should take your mask off is when you’re actually biting and chewing.”
This means keeping the mask on while chatting with other diners, waiting for food and speaking with your waiter. The only exception would be if you’re dining alone at 6 feet away from other people or if you’re dining with members of your household.
Health experts stress testing negative for the coronavirus doesn’t exempt you from wearing a mask.
White House officials have been tested before attending events, but many criticize the administration for putting too much weight on frequent testing and shunning other tools such as masks and distancing.
The problem with relying solely on testing is that test specificity differs – some need only a few hundred virus particles to produce a positive result while others require 10,000 particles. Additionally, someone who is in the beginning stages of the disease may not having enough viral load to get a positive result but can still be infectious.
Nelson also said tests can only definitively tell a person they were negative the moment they took that test. In the time it takes to receive results, that person could have been exposed.
“The moment your test comes back negative, you are no longer negative,” he said. “Masks are very protective, they’re the best weapon we have.
Follow Adrianna Rodriguez on Twitter: @AdriannaUSAT.
Health and patient safety coverage at USA TODAY is made possible in part by a grant from the Masimo Foundation for Ethics, Innovation and Competition in Healthcare. The Masimo Foundation does not provide editorial input.
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: White House ‘super spreader’ event in Rose Garden reminds people that yes, you should still wear a mask outside