As the coronavirus continues to spread across the United States, a debate has emerged over the efficacy of wearing face masks. While most medical professionals and scientists agree on the need for masks, it remains a polarizing issue among the public.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control made a clear case for wearing a mask in mid-July as people continued to deal with lockdowns, “We are not defenseless against COVID-19,” CDC Director Dr. Robert R. Redfield said in a statement. “Cloth face coverings are one of the most powerful weapons we have to slow and stop the spread of the virus – particularly when used universally within a community setting.”
He urged “all Americans” to take on the responsibility to “protect themselves, their families, and their communities.”
The CDC took this position partly based on two studies on mask effectiveness since the virus began. They offer tangible proof that wearing a mask protects others from infection if you have unknowingly contracted the coronavirus.
Declining Infections in a Boston Hospital
In the first of two cases reviewed by CDC doctors in the Journal of the American Medical Association, a hospital system in Boston issued a universal mask wearing policy in late March for all 75,000 employees as well as patients.
Before the policy went into effect, the rate of new infections among healthcare workers with direct or indirect patient contact increased exponentially from 0% to 21.3%, rising about 1.16% each day. After everyone started to wear masks, the proportion of healthcare workers with positive test results declined by about 0.49% per day.
Masks in a Missouri Hair Salon
The second case involved a hair salon in Springfield, Missouri. Two hair stylists infected with the coronavirus provided hair styling services to 139 clients. People feared an outbreak would occur.
However, salon rules mandated that the stylists wear masks. Also, 102 of the 104 clients contacted by researchers said they also wore a mask. As a result, two weeks after the episode, none of the customers who visited the salon had contracted the virus.
Other studies have also emerged in recent months showing that masks can reduce transmission of the coronavirus. The CDC maintains an updated list of the most recent studies.
Wearing masks also addresses economic concerns. A study from Goldman Sachs found that increasing mask wearing by just 15% of the population could eliminate the need for future lockdowns and save 5% of gross domestic product – about $1 trillion.
Why Masks Work?
People transmit the coronavirus through respiratory droplets. People release these droplets when they speak, sneeze or talk. When these droplets land on the mouth or nose of other people, or are inhaled into the lungs, a person can contract the virus. This typically happens more often if people are within about six feet of each other.
A mask provides a barrier that blocks droplets from escaping from your mouth and nose. It’s the same reason why surgeons wear masks during an operation. It prevents patients from becoming infected. By wearing a mask, you contribute to “source control” – that is, preventing yourself from infecting others if you have the virus and are asymptomatic.
Some confusion arose when the CDC changed its stance on masks. Initially, they asked only symptomatic people to wear them. However, they extended this to everyone after research found asymptomatic people could spread the virus.
The CDC notes: “There is ample evidence that persons without symptoms spread infection and may be the critical driver needed to maintain epidemic momentum.”
How To Wear A Mask
The CDC recommends wearing a mask with multiple layers of cloth. People should wear masks when in public or around people that don’t live in their household. They should NOT be worn by those under the age of two or those with a respiratory condition that makes it difficult to breath.
It’s important to wash your hands before putting on your mask. The mask should fit over your nose and mouth and snugly against the side of your face. If you touch the mask while wearing it, make sure to wash your hands or use sanitizer to disinfect.
While wearing a mask takes some getting used to, it’s a small price to pay for protecting others in your community and helping get the pandemic under control.