Evidence is mounting that widespread mask-wearing can significantly slow the spread of coronavirus and help reduce the need for future lockdowns.
Public health authorities did not initially put an emphasis on masks, but that’s changed and there is now increasing consensus that they play an important role in hindering transmission of the virus at a time when wearing one has become politicized as some states and businesses have made them a requirement for certain activities.
Wearing a mask is also seen by experts as a relatively easy action that could help avoid much costlier responses like stay at home orders and closing businesses.
“It’s a lot less economically disruptive to wear a mask than to shut society, so I can’t understand some of the resistance to mask wearing,” Tom Frieden, the former director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), said on a call with reporters on Thursday.
Experts say mask-wearing is not the only response needed to slow the spread of the virus. Avoiding crowds and staying six feet apart from others is also important, as is an effective system of testing and contact tracing so people can quarantine and prevent further spread.
A study from University of Cambridge researchers this week found that widespread mask-wearing can help prevent a resurgence of the virus with less reliance on lockdowns that have proven economically devastating.
The modeling in the study found that if 50 percent or more of the population routinely wore masks, each infected person would on average spread the virus to less than one additional person, causing the outbreak to decline, the university said.
“We have little to lose from the widespread adoption of facemasks, but the gains could be significant,” Renata Retkute, one of the authors of the study, said in a statement.
Scott Gottlieb, the former FDA Commissioner for President Trump, pointed to the study on Twitter this week and wrote: “More widespread masking with higher quality masks could help mitigate a second wave.”
It cannot be ruled out that further lockdowns will be needed, but wearing a mask is one part of a strategy to help avoid them, according to Joshua Sharfstein, vice dean at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.
“I think it could substantially help open workplaces, but I’d still want to maximize distancing,” he said.
The emphasis on masks has been slow to develop in some places. The World Health Organization did not issue a recommendation for the general public to wear masks until last week, previously only saying people who are sick and those caring for them should use masks.
In the early days of the outbreak in the United States, there was also concern about the general public using up masks that were in short supply for health workers.
“Seriously people- STOP BUYING MASKS!” Surgeon General Jerome Adams tweeted at the end of February. “They are NOT effective in preventing general public from catching #Coronavirus, but if healthcare providers can’t get them to care for sick patients, it puts them and our communities at risk!”
That has changed, though, and the general public is now recommended to wear a simple cloth covering that could even be homemade, while leaving more advanced N95 masks for health care workers. The CDC now recommends wearing a mask in public when it is hard to stay six feet away from others, such as in grocery stores and pharmacies. Experts add that wearing a mask is mostly to protect others, not oneself.
“I don’t think it was so obvious from the beginning,” Sharfstein said, pushing back on critics who say authorities were slow to issue mask recommendations. “But it’s become more obvious,” he added.
Public health experts are lamenting, though, that mask-wearing has become politicized as opponents call requirements they wear one an infringement on their personal freedoms.
President Trump did not publicly wear a mask during a May visit to a Ford factory despite the company policy requiring one. He also called it “unusual” that presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden wore a mask during a Memorial Day ceremony, though he said he “wasn’t criticizing.”
In Arizona, which has seen a surge in coronavirus cases recently, Gov. Doug Ducey (R) was pressed at a news conference on Thursday by a reporter who asked, “When was the last time you wore a face mask, governor?”
“I’ve got my face masks with me today,” Ducey said, taking some out of his pocket. “And when I’m not physically distancing, I wear them and wash them often.”
Some states, like Massachusetts and New York, have mandated masks when people are in public and cannot stay six feet apart. Asked if he would mandate masks in Arizona, Ducey did not answer directly, but said, “I want people to wear masks when they can’t socially distance.”
Carlos del Rio, a professor of epidemiology at Emory University, compared the situation with mask-wearing to the early days of seatbelts.
“Imagine if today was the ‘60s and we were starting to use seatbelts and you would have some politicians say, ‘Oh, seatbelts don’t make a difference; I like my freedom; I don’t like to be tied down when I’m driving,’” he said.
But, he added: “Over and over the evidence is showing masks work; masks make a difference.”
“I didn’t jump on masks immediately,” he said. “But after a while, I said, ‘Yeah this is what we all need to be doing,’ but I think it took some time.”