You’ve heard it hundreds – maybe thousands – of times over the last few months: Masks save lives! But do they? Does it really make a difference if I wear a mask when I go out in public?
Pre-COVID-19, there wasn’t a lot of research done about the effectiveness of masks. But in the last few months, out of necessity, several studies have been completed on whether masks reduce viral transmission. While there are outliers, the overwhelming consensus is that masks do help prevent the spread of COVID-19.
Every time we cough or sneeze, talk or even just breathe, we expel tiny respiratory droplets (and sometimes, embarrassingly, saliva). These droplets act as a vehicle for germs like COVID-19, helping them spread far and wide. Think of when you exhale in the winter. Your breath cloud lasts several seconds and spreads out around you before dissipating. Or think of when you’re walking near someone who is smoking or vaping. You can smell it even if you’re standing several yards away. You can see or smell the spread of these respiratory droplets.
Masks help minimize the spread of these potentially infected droplets by keeping most of them inside your mask rather than expelling them to the world, meaning if you’re infected, it’s less likely you’ll infect others if you’re wearing a mask. Additionally, studies are showing that even basic cloth face coverings can help prevent you from contracting the virus when others around you are infected.
A study, led by a Texas A&M University professor, found that not wearing a mask dramatically increases your risk of contracting COVID-19. The authors state that wearing masks prevented as many as 66,000 infections in New York City in a three-week period lasting April 17-May 9. During this time period, New York City saw approximately 93,000 positive COVID-19 cases, but without masks, this number could have been 71% higher.
One of the study’s co-authors, Mario Molina, told a Texas A&M publication: “Our study establishes very clearly that using a face mask is not only useful to prevent infected coughing droplets from reaching uninfected persons, but is also crucial for these uninfected persons to avoid breathing the minute atmospheric particles (aerosols) that infected people emit when talking and that can remain in the atmosphere tens of minutes and can travel tens of feet.”
A review of 172 observational studies from 16 countries across six continents looked at something else we have all heard about by now: social distancing. While we recommend that you stay at least six feet from non-household members, the study found that the farther you are away from someone, the lower your risk of either spreading or contracting the virus. So six feet at a minimum, but farther is better.
The same authors also reviewed 39 studies that looked at the efficacy of wearing face masks, including N95 respirators, surgical masks and cloth face coverings. They found a significant decrease in the risk of infection among people who wore masks. While N95 respirators were most effective in health care settings, cloth face coverings provide protection to the general public in non-healthcare settings. The World Health Organization (WHO) recommends that cloth masks consist of at least three layers to increase their efficacy.
The study authors stress, however, that keeping your distance from others and wearing a mask do not provide complete protection against COVID-19. The best protection is and always will be staying home as must as possible. But knowing that we can’t go on like that forever, if you do go out, these are simple ways to lower your chances of contracting or spreading the virus. But don’t forget to wash your hands or use hand sanitizer frequently!
Finally, I’m feeling healthy today. Sure, sure, I have seasonal allergies, but they’re not contagious! So why do I have to wear a mask right now? It has become clear over the last few months that COVID-19 can spread even if an infected person is feeling fine. The virus can spread for up to three days before someone is symptomatic. And even more concerning, many people never develop symptoms at all or, more commonly, have such mild symptoms that they don’t even realize they’re sick. But these people, lucky as they are, can still spread the virus, potentially to someone who will end up on a ventilator or even die.
A study out of Cambridge and Greenwich Universities in Great Britain found that wearing a mask any time you’re in public is twice as effective at reducing the transmission rate as wearing a mask in public only after you become symptomatic. Masks are an easy and cheap way to reduce the spread of the virus. Masks really do save lives.
Of course, we know that there are some people who genuinely can’t wear masks. It’s not that they find them uncomfortable or hot; it’s not that they fog up their glasses; it’s not that they don’t like the way they look; it’s not that they think they’re a sign of weakness or fear. There are people who have medical or behavioral health conditions that make wearing a mask dangerous for them or inhibit their ability to communicate. It’s incumbent upon all of us to ensure that people who cannot wear a mask are protected, even if they cannot protect themselves. When you wear a mask, you’re protecting yourself and everyone around you. Wearing a mask is a sign that you care about others, people beyond yourself. It’s part of being a community.
We’re all tired of COVID-19. We want to get on with our lives. Masks, as annoying as they are, will help us get there faster by decreasing the spread of the virus. COVID-19 will be with us for a while; no one knows for sure how long. Wearing a mask will help us get to some sense of normalcy before a vaccine is developed.
If wearing a mask means that I can go shopping, get my hair cut, or visit a friend, then I consider it a small price to pay. I’d rather the bottom half of my face be uncomfortable than be stuck at home for another three months!