By Stephanie Nebehay and Silke Koltrowitz
GENEVA/ZURICH (Reuters) – The World Health Organization (WHO) voiced concern on Monday that the wearing of medical masks by the general public could exacerbate the shortage for health workers on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It said lockdowns in many places are proving effective in dampening spread of the coronavirus but any lifting of restrictions requires a calibrated, step-wise approach based on data.
European nations including hardest-hit Italy and Spain have started looking ahead to easing their lockdowns as fatality rates have fallen, while Austria said on Monday it would start reopening shops from next week, although it widened a requirement to wear face masks.
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Gheybresus, noting that several countries were considering new recommendations on masks, said: “First and foremost medical masks must be prioritised for health workers on the front lines of the response.
“We are concerned that the mass use of medical masks by the general population could exacerbate the shortage of these specialised masks for the people who need them most,” he told a virtual news conference.
“Masks alone cannot stop the pandemic, countries must continue to find, test, isolate and treat every case and trace every contact.”
Tedros also announced that Lady Gaga would direct a televised live concert “One World: Together at Home” with top entertainers including Elton John and Paul McCartney later this month to support health workers.
“It has been an honour to help with this huge broadcast event that will take place on April 18 where we need to tell the stories of and celebrate the frontline community, health care workers and their acts of kindness,” Lady Gaga told reporters.
In the past week, $35 million had been raised for WHO’s solidarity fund, the American pop star added.
Dr. Mike Ryan, WHO’s top emergencies expert, said governments would have to look at specific parameters, including hospital bed occupancy, the doubling rate of infections and the proportion of positive results compared to all tested samples, to determine whether they can start lifting easing measures.
“So (we need) a step-wise approach of unlocking somewhat and then waiting to see. I think you need to say we’ll stop doing this element of the shutdown and then we’ll wait and we’ll look at the data. And if that works, we’ll go to the next stage.”
He said it was very important to help fragile countries in the developing world to avoid a lockdown situation.
Tedros, a former Ethiopian foreign minister, said Africa should do its utmost to prevent coronavirus transmissions. But he condemned what he said were suggestions by some scientists that the “testing ground” for experimental vaccines should be Africa. Normal protocols will be followed, he said.
“We will be announcing as soon as possible, hopefully during this week, a big initiative to accelerate the research, development and production of vaccines and also design mechanisms for equitable distribution,” Tedros said.
(Reporting by Stephanie Nebehay and Silke Koltrowitz; editing by Mark Heinrich)