Regional officials at the World Health Organization on Wednesday encouraged everyone to continue to wear face masks in public to reduce coronavirus transmission, even if local authorities no longer mandate their use.
“The use of masks is still recommended,” said Dr. Ciro Ugarte, director of health emergencies at the Pan American Health Organization, the regional arm of the WHO for the Western Hemisphere.
Masks have been proven to be highly effective at reducing transmission of the virus when used properly, Dr. Ugarte said in a conference call with reporters and other WHO officials.
“It’s a measure that still continues to be very relevant and complementary with other measures,” like social distancing, hand-washing and proper indoor ventilation, he said. “Our general advice is that the general public should wear a nonmedical mask indoors, or in outdoor settings where physical distancing 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 struck down by a judge on Monday, though the Biden administration is appealing.
“Regarding travelers and travel by plane, we know that the use of masks has been reduced dramatically the transmission during traveling,” Dr. Ugarte said when asked about the ruling that voided the mandate in the United States. He expressed concern that people may be stigmatized for choosing to wear masks when they are no longer required.
Mask wearing should be made voluntary only in countries where there is virtually no community transmission, and only when accompanied by increased testing and vaccination, he said.
“We’ve seen that in some countries, the use of masks has been reduced to voluntary levels, and at the same time they’ve reduced the detection of cases,” Dr. Ugarte said. “We can’t let our guard down.”
While many countries in the Americas have achieved fairly high vaccination rates, some continue to lag far behind, PAHO officials said. Dr. Carissa Etienne, director of the agency, noted that Haiti, Jamaica, Guatemala and Paraguay, among others, had yet to vaccinate half their populations, allowing the virus to keep taking a deadly toll.
“In some countries, Covid has become the No. 1 cause of maternal deaths,” Dr. Etienne said. “These deaths are avoidable.”
Elsewhere in the world:
Officials from the WHO’s Eastern Mediterranean region, which includes more than 20 countries in North Africa, the Middle East and southwestern Asia, said on Wednesday that vaccination rates in the region were too low, with only about 40 percent of people fully vaccinated. Though new cases and coronavirus-related deaths have been declining, transmission remains high, making it risky to cut back on testing and surveillance, as some countries in the region have been doing, Ahmed Al-Mandhari, the WHO’s regional director, said 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, the WHO region’s director for health emergencies.
Emma Bubola contributed reporting.