We are now 4 months into 2020 and roughly 4 months since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak. And yet, even after all this time and with all the data we’ve gathered, we still have debates about things as simple as “Should we wear face masks?”
Previously, the CDC and the World Health Organization advised that only symptomatic people need to wear masks, partly to leave N95 and other medical-grade masks for medical staff fighting on the frontline.
Both of these organizations, as well as other health and governmental officials are now recommending that people should wear cloth masks.
Even President Trump said in a briefing on April 2 that his administration will soon release nationwide recommendations on wearing face masks. Still, as usual, he was flexible on the issue, saying that wearing face masks would be a recommendation, not a mandate. “Some people don’t want to do that” and that people can “decide for themselves.”
The president also said that “And it doesn’t have to be a mask; it can be a scarf. A scarf is highly recommended by the professionals,” which is technically true – wearing a scarf is better than not wearing anything as it will still capture at least some of the water droplets going in or out of your mouth.
Dr. Anthony Fauci, the Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases also recently said in front of ABC’s Good Morning America that while the first most important use of face masks is to protect health workers and the second most important use is to prevent known infected people from spreading the virus, there is another consideration that “When you pull back and think about it, we’re starting to reexamine the possibility that if there are enough masks, should everyone be wearing masks? Those who’re trying to protect themselves, and those who’re trying to protect others cause they might be infected … Given the situation that we might have enough masks for everyone, I think there’s some rationale that we should utilize them much more than we do at the present time.”
Dr. Fauci also admits that the main reason he and others have been advising the general population not to wear masks is that there was the fear that if people buy and hoard masks, there won’t be enough masks left over for medical professionals and infected people. And while this logic holds, there are a couple of caveats to it – 1) there are much more masks on the market today than there were a while ago and 2) N95 (medical grade) masks are not the only masks that work against the spread of COVID-19 – simpler, cheaper, and much more abundant cloth masks work as well.
Why face masks work?
COVID-19 is not an airborne virus which means that it doesn’t really spread through the air. Instead, it’s a waterborne virus – it needs water droplets such as the saliva water droplets that are released from our mouths when we speak in order to travel.
What gives the illusion that COVID-19 is “airborne” is the fact that said water droplets are often partially airborne themselves – you can contract the virus even simply by speaking with someone who’s less than 6 feet away from you. However, the fact that the virus is contained in these water droplets means that a face mask doesn’t need to stop the virus itself – it just needs to stop the droplets it’s in. And any piece of cloth can do that.
Granted, no face mask is 100% effective – even an N95 mask will fail to stop one out of X airborne water droplets and other masks or scarves will fail even more. However, these masks will still offer at least some protection, reducing the risk that you get infected as well as the risk that you accidentally infect someone else, thus slowing the spread of the disease through the population.
And all this is not something new either. We all know that we have to protect our mouth and face when we sneeze and cough – that’s done for the same reason – to stop the water droplets we release from reaching others. It’s as much common knowledge as it is a scientific fact.
How different would the situation be if people were wearing masks from the start?
Here are some statistics as of April 3, 2020, from several Asian countries that are much closer to China and where people live in more densely populated areas than the U.S.:
- Taiwan – is home to 23,78 million people that live in an area of 35,808 square kilometers So far they’ve had 348 recorded COVID-19 cases and 5 deaths.
- Japan – a population of 126,168 million people in an area of just 377,915 square kilometers. They’ve only had 2,617 cases and 63 deaths so far.
- South Korea – a population of 51,709 million people in an area of 100,363 square kilometers with 10,062 recorded cases and 174 deaths.
- Hong Kong – a population of 7,482,500 people in an area of just 2,755 square kilometers and so far they have only 845 COVID-19 cases and 4 deaths.
What do these countries have in common?
The majority of people living there have been wearing face masks and practicing social distancing norms even when not staying in a 100% quarantine since the beginning of the outbreak.
If we compare that to the U.S. (or other Western countries) where the recorded cases are a whopping 257,379 with 6,558 deaths out of 327,2 million people that are spread over a vast territory, and we see how important face masks and social distancing are.
And the pandemic hasn’t even reached its peak yet.
The head of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention recently told Science Magazine that “The big mistake in the U.S. and Europe, in my opinion, is that people aren’t wearing masks. This virus is transmitted by droplets and close contact. Droplets play a very important role—you’ve got to wear a mask, because when you speak, there are always droplets coming out of your mouth. Many people have asymptomatic or presymptomatic infections. If they are wearing face masks, it can prevent droplets that carry the virus from escaping and infecting others.”
And that sums it up pretty well. While masks are not 100% foolproof, and other things can and should be done as well, wearing even just a simple cloth mask whenever in public will not only offer you a considerable level of protection but it will also protect those around you and slow the spread of the disease to a more manageable pace.