The power of masks
Category: News & PoliticsVia: john-russell • 3 weeks ago • 20 comments
A t long last, we have made a truly game-changing scientific breakthrough in preventing the spread of COVID-19. We have found a disease-control tool that, when used properly, can reduce transmission by somewhere between 50% and 85%. The tool is cheap and remarkably low-tech. You can even make one at home.
If this tool were a vaccine or a medicine, we’d be high-fiving one another and popping the champagne, knowing we’d discovered a crucial means to help prevent the spread of the pandemic.
I’m talking, of course, about face masks. Face masks block the spread of respiratory droplets that can carry the novel coronavirus. But just as with so many other aspects of the response to COVID-19—including mass testing, contact tracing and the early use of stay-at-home orders—the U.S. is once again squandering this opportunity.
In many countries that have so far successfully controlled their COVID-19 epidemics, health experts, politicians and the public have fully embraced the use of face masks without controversy. A recent study found that nations—like Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam—where masks were widely used soon after their COVID-19 outbreaks began were more likely to keep death rates low (fewer than six deaths per million people) and to have shorter outbreaks.
YET IN THE U.S., where the death rate from COVID-19 is now 394 per million people, face masks have been weaponized for partisan purposes. Taking their cues from President Trump, who has refused to appear on camera wearing a face mask and has said Americans who wear masks are doing so to show their disapproval of him, many of his supporters now see wearing a face mask as an affront to personal liberty.
As a result of this alarming polarization, only 23 states and the District of Columbia are mandating face masks in public. Only four—Massachusetts, Maryland, Texas and West Virginia—have GOP governors. Some Republican-led states are trying to subvert local measures that require masks.
Rejecting face masks inevitably means embracing more COVID-19 cases and deaths. One U.S. study found that states with mask mandates had more rapid declines in daily growth rates of COVID-19, and estimated that mask use had prevented up to 450,000 cases by May 22. While researchers at the University of Washington now predict that the U.S. could reach 180,000 COVID-19 deaths by October, they say we could prevent 33,000 of these deaths if at least 95% of people wore masks.
That’s right. We can avert the deaths of 33,000 of our parents, grandparents, siblings, co-workers, teachers, bus drivers, nurses, and store workers by just sticking a $1 piece of cloth over our noses and mouths.
So what’s stopping us? One problem is the “me first” culture in the U.S., in which anti-maskers claim that their right to go around unmasked in public matters more than saving lives. What they don’t seem to get is that while masks may protect the wearer, the more important reason to wear them is to protect others. What’s more, the higher the proportion of people who wear masks, the lower the risk that the coronavirus will spread through the community, akin to herd immunity after vaccination.
This is why it is so important for governments to issue and enforce mask mandates. COVID-19 cases are on the rise again in 40 states, according to the Associated Press—and are growing exponentially in states like Arizona, Texas and Florida that acted too quickly to reopen businesses. The only way to control the dramatic rise in these hard-hit states will be to reinstate lockdowns and mandatory social distancing. Mass masking isn’t the way to end a huge surge in COVID-19. Instead, it is one of the ways that we can help avoid repeated cycles of surge, lockdown and release.
There is plenty of evidence from countries around the world that widespread mask wearing—in combination with social distancing, handwashing and track-and-trace testing—will allow us to more safely do the things we so desperately want and need to do: go back to work, reopen schools, see friends and family, and rebuild our economy.
Wearing a face mask is not a sign of weakness. It is an act of solidarity, an expression that all of us—Democrats, Republicans and independents—have a role to play in defeating one of the greatest challenges we have faced in our lifetimes.
Yamey is a physician and professor of global health and public policy at Duke University
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