The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped life as we know it. Many people are staying house, avoiding people on the street and altering every day habits, like going to school or work, in methods we by no means imagined.
While we are changing old behaviours, there are new routines we need to adopt. At the beginning is the behavior of wearing a mask or face covering every time we are in a public space.
Based on our prior work in outbreaks of infectious diseases, we all know that clear, constant messages about what folks can do to protect themselves and their group are critical. By that measure, the messaging on masks has been confusing.
Early within the pandemic, most of the people was told not to wear masks. This was driven by the longstanding recognition that commonplace surgical masks (also called medical masks) are insufficient to protect the wearer from many respiratory pathogens, as well as the concern about diverting restricted provides from healthcare settings.
Science is the pursuit of knowledge and understanding, and it inevitably adjustments the way we see the world. Thanks to the tireless efforts of scientists in every single place, we now have compressed years of research on the COVID-19 virus into months. This has led to a rapid evolution of policies and proposals, and not surprisingly some skepticism in regards to the advice of experts.
These are among the things we’ve learned:
Masks and face coverings can forestall the wearer from transmitting the COVID-19 virus to others and may provide some protection to the wearer. A number of studies have shown that face coverings can comprise droplets expelled from the wearer, which are accountable for almost all of transmission of the virus. This ‘source control’ approach reflects a shift in thinking from a ‘medical’ perspective (will it protect the wearer?) to a ‘public health’ perspective (will it help reduce neighborhood transmission and risk for everybody?).
Many individuals with COVID-19 are unaware they are carrying the virus. It’s estimated that 40% of persons with COVID-19 are asymptomatic but probably able to transmit the virus to others. In the absence widespread screening tests, we have now no manner of identifying many people who are silently transmitting the virus of their community.
Universal mask use can significantly reduce virus transmission in the neighborhood by preventing anybody, including those who are unwittingly carrying the virus, from transmitting it to others. Illness modeling suggests masks worn by significant parts of the population, coupled with other measures, might end in substantial reductions in case numbers and deaths.
Masks aren’t good limitations to transmission, but they don’t have to be perfect if they aren’t used alone. Universal mask use needs to be accompanied by different public health measures such as physical distancing, testing, contact tracing and restrictions on giant gatherings. These measures aren’t good either, but when many imperfect measures are mixed at a group level, they can be very effective at slowing transmission and reducing infections.
Masks can even reduce the inequitable impact of the pandemic, particularly for those who live in crowded environments where physical distancing is difficult, and for many who work in frontline roles where there is a higher risk of exposure to the virus.
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