Tourists wearing face masks wait to cross a road in downtown Barcelona, Spain, Thursday, July 16, 2020. With Europe's summer vacation season kicking into high gear for millions weary of months of lockdown, scenes of drunken British and German tourists on Spain's Mallorca island ignoring social distancing rules and reports of American visitors flouting quarantine measures in Ireland are raising fears of a resurgence of infections in countries that have battled for months to flatten the COVID-19 curve. (AP Photo/Emilio Morenatti)

The WHO hasn’t ‘admitted’ healthy people should stop wearing masks

AAP FactCheck February 12, 2021

The Statement

A Facebook post claims the World Health Organization (WHO) has advised healthy people to stop wearing face masks.

The January 28 post, by an Australian user, features a screenshot that includes an image of WHO director-general Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus. Underneath and underlined in red is the text: “The World Health Organization admits there is no scientific medical reason for any healthy person to wear a mask outside of a hospital.”

The text continues, “Sadly our corrupt politicians and mainstream media only relate the bad news. If you do not have any respiratory symptoms, such as fever, cough, or runny nose, you do not need to wear a medical mask. When used alone, masks can give you a false feeling of protection and can even be a source of infection when not used correctly.”

Circled in red at the top of the screenshot is the publication date of January 25, 2021. At the time of writing, the post had been shared more than 270 times and viewed more than 15,000 times.

A Facebook post
 A post claims the World Health Organization (WHO) has suggested healthy people stop wearing a mask. 

The Analysis

The Facebook post falsely suggests the World Health Organization recently advised healthy people to stop wearing face masks. While the post features a photo of WHO director-general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, it does not attribute any quotes to him.

The post features the same text and image as a January 25 article titled, “WHO: You Do NOT Need To Wear A Mask“, published on the Principia Scientific International (PSI) website.

The original article, since updated, began with the words, “In a telling admission made on January 22, 2021”, and finished with “watch the video of the press announcement” before linking to an archived version of the WHO’s COVID-19 information page.

However, the WHO press conference from that date does not include the advice. Rather, in response to a question about the efficacy of masks against new variants of the virus, WHO technical lead Maria Van Kerkhove told journalists: “Masks are one aspect of control, one aspect of reducing the spread of this virus and they can’t be used alone. We need to emphasise that, because no one solution is enough – not masks alone is enough, not physical distancing, not hand hygiene.” (Video mark 46min)

Dr Kerkhove added that the WHO was not changing its guidance on protection measures due to the new virus strains. She said its guidance included a recommendation that people wear three-layered fabric masks made to certain specifications.

The updated article from PSI, which has previously shared a series of debunked climate change-related claims, carried a “correction” that stated: “Last month (December, 2020) WHO issued the following advice that masks are only of some benefit if used in conjunction with a range of other measures and of limited value.”

It included a link to a WHO interim guidance document on “mask use in the context of COVID-19” from December 1, 2020, and a quote: “…the use of a mask alone, even when correctly used (see below), is insufficient to provide an adequate level of protection for an uninfected individual or prevent onward transmission from an infected individual (source control).”

While the article correctly quotes the document, it omits the preceding paragraph which gives added context to the word “alone”: “The use of masks is part of a comprehensive package of prevention and control measures that can limit the spread of certain respiratory viral diseases, including COVID-19.

“Masks can be used for protection of healthy persons (worn to protect oneself when in contact with an infected individual) or for source control (worn by an infected individual to prevent onward transmission) or both.”

The document as a whole provides a range of advice on the correct use of masks, including advice that the general public wear non-medical masks indoors as well as in outdoor settings where physical distancing couldn’t be maintained.

The PSI article includes a further update, dated January 30, which cites comments from WHO executive director Michael Ryan from March 31, 2020, when he said: “There is no specific evidence to suggest that the wearing of masks by the mass population has any potential benefit. In fact, there’s some evidence to suggest the opposite in the misuse of wearing a mask properly or fitting it properly.”

Dr Ryan went on to say that there was “a massive global shortage” of masks and those most at risk were frontline health workers, adding: “The thought of them not having masks is horrific.”

However, in June the WHO changed its advice, with Dr Tedros telling governments the general public should be encouraged to wear masks where there was widespread transmission and where physical distancing was difficult “in light of evolving evidence”.

Since then, including in recent months, the organisation has consistently advocated for the use of masks among other measures to slow the spread of the virus.

In his New Year message on December 30, for example, Dr Tedros said vaccines offered “great hope to turn the tide of the pandemic” but while rollouts were taking place people needed to follow “tried and tested measures that keep each and all of us safe”.

“This means maintaining physical distance, wearing face masks, practicing hand and respiratory hygiene, avoiding crowded indoor places and meeting people outside,” he said.

The WHO’s mask advice is backed up by Australian state authorities, with the New South Wales government advising: “NSW Health strongly encourages everyone to wear a mask when unable to physically distance, particularly in indoor settings.”

A Victorian government COVID-19 advisory states: “Face masks are one of the most important ways we can help slow the spread of coronavirus (COVID-19) in the community.

“Wearing a fitted face mask protects both you and the people around you by reducing the movement of coronavirus (COVID-19), especially when indoors where ventilation is reduced. This two-way protection significantly reduces community transmission when more people wear face masks.”

Several experts previously told AAP FactCheck that the purpose of mass masking was not to protect the wearer from infection but rather to slow or stop the spread of the virus.

A January 2021 evidence review of mask-wearing to protect against COVID-19, published by the National Academy of Sciences and co-authored by 19 academics, found evidence “in favour of widespread mask use as source control to reduce community transmission”.

“When used in conjunction with widespread testing, contact tracing, quarantining of anyone that may be infected, hand washing, and physical distancing, face masks are a valuable tool to reduce community transmission,” the review concluded.

Similar posts claiming WHO said healthy people don’t need to wear a mask outside of a hospital have been debunked here, here and here.

Tourists wearing face masks wait to cross a road in Barcelona.
 Masks should be part of protection measures used to suppress COVID-19, the WHO says. 

The Verdict

The post falsely suggests the WHO recently advised there was no reason for healthy people to wear masks. In fact, the organisation has consistently recommended since mid-2020 that masks should be used as a key component of COVID-19 protection strategies.

False – Content that has no basis in fact.

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