In April, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) officially recommended “wearing cloth face coverings in public settings where other social distancing measures are difficult to maintain.”
Since then, more Americans are supporting the CDC’s recommendation as data bolstering the protective benefits of face coverings continue to emerge.
Most recently, a study published July 14 touts the merits of universal masking. Certainly, more studies will tell us what we already know: masks work.
So, where do we go from here? We should put into practice what we know.
Our behavior remains the key to helping stem the pandemic spread. Wearing a mask in public is most effective at stopping spread of the virus when compliance is high—a vitally important consideration because we can transmit COVID-19 while we’re either pre-symptomatic and asymptomatic.
Studies report that viral load (the amount of virus in an infected person's blood) peaks in the days before symptoms begin. This has lethal implications because the virus primarily spreads by droplets from someone who is coughing, sneezing or talking within a few feet away. Large droplets can fall onto surfaces and can be picked up on fingers and carried to the eyes, nose or mouth.
Because we can’t tell who is infected with COVID-19, wearing a mask per CDC guidelines is critical to protecting our loved ones and preventing virus spread.
Wearing a mask only reduces the amount of droplets, it does not completely stop them. But even that protective benefit may be enough to prevent someone from becoming infected, result in a milder case, and possibly lower the risk of the occurrence of another COVID-19 wave.
So, we know that masks work. But it will take all of us wearing them to maximize their protective health benefit. Research suggests that the more people in our community who wear a mask, the safer we make our community. Thus, the higher rate of compliance, the better.
We’ve seen this with vaccines. The more people who are vaccinated, the higher the benefit to our community members, including those who can’t be vaccinated such as infants and people with weakened immune systems.
We should wear masks because they save lives.
Earlier this month, a Cambridge University study found that in every country where compliance rates neared 100 percent for wearing face coverings had “experienced significantly lower rates of COVID-19 spread and associated deaths” than in countries where face-mask compliance was lower or non-existent.
How low is low? One-hundred percent is optimal, although 80 percent would be more effective than a lockdown, researchers report.
Yet, according to a July 13 Gallup poll, less than half of Americans cover their noses and mouth when in public, and when social distancing is difficult. In fact, three in 10 U.S. adults sometimes, rarely or never use a mask.
Again, we’re trending up in terms of facemask compliance—a welcome and positive development— but one wonders why our national compliance remains low, even as our nation’s infection and death rate continue to soar to record levels.
Now, more than ever, we should wear face coverings in the spirit of “I wear a mask to protect you. You wear a mask to protect me.”
For example, in countries such as Taiwan, South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam, people routinely wear masks when someone is ill, a cultural practice partly derived from experience with serious pandemics. Interestingly, research in cultural psychology suggests societies with a history of pathogen exposure are more likely to prioritize group conformity and behavior, which are key defense mechanisms against pathogenic exposure and spread.
There is no vaccine for COVID-19. The only available options to protect ourselves -- aside from lockdowns and quarantines, which no one wants and relying on an overburdened healthcare sector -- are social distancing, frequently washing hands, and wearing masks.
Dr. K. Alex Daneshmand, D.O., MBA, FAAP, is the chief quality and patient safety officer at Lee Health.