Surgeon general says administration “trying to correct” earlier guidance against wearing masks

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FILE – U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams speaks about the coronavirus in the James Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House, Friday, April 3, 2020, in Washington. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)

WASHINGTON (CBS) — As states and cities issue orders for their residents to wear masks or face coverings in public to protect against the coronavirus, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams said the Trump administration is “trying to correct” its guidance earlier in the coronavirus pandemic urging Americans not to wear face coverings.

“We’re trying to correct that messaging,” Adams said Sunday on “Face the Nation. “But it’s very hard to do.”

As the pandemic began its rapid spread across the United States in March, Adams and other administration officials advised against wearing masks, a recommendation that came as hospitals faced drastic shortages of personal protective equipment.

In an earlier interview with “Face the Nation” on March 8, Adams said, “masks do not work for the general public and preventing them from getting coronavirus.” But on Sunday, Adams appeared on the program donning a mask and urged viewers to wear face coverings when they are in public.

The surgeon general said the shift in guidance to the American people is attributed to a better understanding of the coronavirus and how it spreads.

“Everything we knew about coronaviruses before that point told us that people were not likely to spread when they were asymptomatic,” Adams said. “So the science at the time suggested that there was not a high degree of asymptomatic spread. We learned more.”

Adams said there was also a concern about people hoarding personal protective equipment, which compounded shortages in hospitals and other medical facilities. But the “primary reason” for the recommendation not to wear masks “was because that’s what the science said.”

“We follow the science and when we learn more, our recommendations change,” he said.

The push by Adams and other public health experts in the Trump administration comes as states across the Sun Belt and the West are experiencing surges in coronavirus infections. To mitigate the spread of the illness, governors have put their phased reopenings on hold and in nearly half of the states require the use of masks or face coverings in certain situations.

The White House, however, has stopped short of issuing a nationwide mask mandate. On Saturday, President Trump was seen wearing a face mask in public for the first time during a trip to Walter Reed Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

While many states are experiencing a surge in coronavirus cases, Adams said the country is better positioned today to combat the spread than it was at the start of the pandemic, including in terms of resources such as masks, gloves and ventilators.

“We can turn this thing around in two to three weeks if we can get a critical mass of people wearing face coverings, practicing at least six feet of social distancing, doing the things that we know are effective,” he said, adding that the American people “have the power to slow the spread.”

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