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Former Baltimore health commissioner on coronavirus: "Don't buy masks"

Dr. Leana Wen on "The Takeout"
Listen to this episode on ART19

Highlights:

  • The risk of getting coronavirus: "We're a country of 330 million people, so the risk to the average, everyday person remains low. But that still means that we should get prepared."
  • Warning against buying surgical masks: "That mask will not be effective. It may actually be more harmful to you in some ways too."
  • Urging people to wash their hands frequently: "The key is, before you touch your face, you need to wash your hands."

Although the risk for most Americans of infection by the coronavirus remains low, the former Baltimore health commissioner says that everyone should be taking precautions. Dr. Leana Wen, who also served as president of Planned Parenthood until last year, spoke with CBS News chief Washington correspondent Major Garrett for an episode of "The Takeout" podcast focused on the coronavirus.

"We're a country of 330 million people, so the risk to the average, everyday person remains low. But that still means that we should get prepared," Wen said. She compared preparing for the coronavirus to anticipating a snowstorm or a hurricane: "It may never happen, but if it does, at least we're prepared."

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Former Baltimore Health Commissioner Leana Wen spoke with Major Garrett for this week's episode of "The Takeout" podcast CBS News / Jake Rosen

Wen also debunked the idea that wearing a mask in public will help prevent a person from getting the virus. Surgical masks are not designed to prevent you from getting sick, Wen noted, but to protect other people  from your germs. As people breathe and cough into the mask, it also becomes damp and collects your germs.

"It becomes a reservoir for germs," Wen said about surgical masks. "That mask will not be effective. It may actually be more harmful to you in some ways too."

Health care workers require specific masks, but those need to be specially fitted. So even if a person did buy the kind of mask used by health care workers, it would not work properly, Wen said. Wearing a mask also leads to people touching their faces more often to adjust it.

"Don't buy masks is the most important takeaway," Wen said. "It actually puts a drain on the entire system."

Wen also cautioned against following remedies to create your own hand sanitizer, which are becoming popular on the internet.

"I think it's much better to focus on the basics, which is to have soap," Wen said. She added that people should be washing their hands continuously to stave off the threat.

"The key is, before you touch your face, you need to wash your hands," Wen said.

For more of Major's conversation with Wen, download "The Takeout" podcast on  iTunesGooglePlaySpotify and Stitcher. New episodes are available every Friday morning. Also, you can watch "The Takeout" on CBSN Friday at 5pm, 9pm, and 12am ET and Saturday at 1pm, 9pm, and 12am ET. For a full archive of "The Takeout" episodes, visit www.takeoutpodcast.com. And you can listen to "The Takeout" on select CBS News Radio affiliates (check your local listings).  

Producers: Arden Farhi, Jamie Benson, Sara Cook and Eleanor Watson
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