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Making the case for all Americans to wear face masks to beat COVID-19

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By now, people here in the US and everywhere else on the globe have become accustomed to the sight of people wearing face masks. We’ve been practicing social distancing and diligent hand-washing, but protecting ourselves and others by covering our faces in public is becoming a more important weapon in fighting the spread of the coronavirus.

In Taiwan and Japan, for example, where masks are routinely worn, the virus is spreading at rates dramatically slower than in places were masks have been less frequently used. While news on the virus seems to change by the hour, evidence suggests that Covid-19 can be transmitted even before symptoms occur and that local spread might be inhibited if everyone wore face masks. In fact, recent reports show that many people may have had the virus and not even known it.

An earlier country by country coronavirus case trajectory comparison showed accelerated, rapid spread in countries where masks were not commonly worn, like China, the US, and Italy, and a much slower, lower rate spread in Japan, Taiwan, and South Korea where masks were donned early on in the crisis. In addition, wearing masks in all outdoor places can inhibit people spreading the virus to others.

Can wearing masks protect others?

The short answer is yes, and we’ve seen the evidence. A recent Honge Kong lab study found evidence that wearing face protection may prevent the spread of viruses from the wearer. Of the subjects displaying influenza-like symptoms, half of them wore masks and half did not. For 30 minutes viruses were collected from the air they breathed out, including coughs. Face masks were shown to reduce the amounts of droplets and aerosols containing detectable amounts of virus, but these were not coronavirus. So while the study is promising, much more work is urgently needed.

Only last month, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and some state and local authorities previously told the public to forgo wearing masks, but they have recently updated that advice and now recommend members of the public wear masks when outside of their homes. What changed? Six weeks ago there were very few cases of Covid-19 in the United States, and infection control strategies focused on containing the spread and identifying and isolating infected individuals. Now that we are experiencing community-wide spread, the strategies have to shift to control the spread.

The case for wearing masks

While mask-wearing recommendations have seen changes in the past six weeks, the situation has compelled authorities to update guidelines. This pandemic is fast-moving , and the world is in a different state than it was just a month ago. Considering the current high prevalence of COVID-19 now at the community level, and knowing that individuals with the virus may be contagious even without symptoms, it is common sense for us all to be wearing face protection to help prevent the spread of potentially infectious droplets.

Remember that wearing a mask in public is not a substitute for social distancing, frequent hand washing, and no face-touching. These are all things simple enough to do yet they could provide an essential key in stopping the spread of the disease.

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