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Latest research reminds us that wearing masks is an idea that’s centuries old

1918 flu pandemic mask wearing
Photo via Armed Forces Institute of Pathology-National Museum of Health and Medicine/Flickr (Public domain)

As research shows, wearing masks to protect yourself and others during an outbreak is an idea that goes back centuries. And until enough of the population gets vaccinated for the world to achieve herd immunity, wearing a mask is one of the most important tools you can use. 

Now that Joe Biden is the president, he’s written executive orders that mandate people wear masks while on federal land, and he’s been seen wearing face coverings more often in the two weeks since he was inaugurated than Donald Trump did for the past 10 months. 

So, yes, there’s more hope to ending the pandemic than we’ve seen since it began. But it’s not over yet. January was the deadliest month since the pandemic began, and the Biden administration was so flummoxed by a lack of data kept by the Trump administration that it wasn’t even sure how many vaccines were available in the U.S. 

That’s why the continued wearing of masks in our everyday lives is imperative. More research continues to emerge about the masks and whether they should be worn to help stave off coronavirus transmissions, and the vast majority of it shows masks are vital to keep people safe from COVID-19. Recently, one of South Dakota Gov. Kristi Noem’s advisers said, “I’m still waiting for someone to point me to where in the world mask mandates are working.”

Well, researchers have known for centuries that wearing masks is important. 

–Howard, J., Huang, A., Li, Z., Tufekci, Z., Zdimal, V., & van der Westhuizen, H. et al. (2021). An evidence review of face masks against COVID-19. Proceedings Of The National Academy Of Sciences, 118(4), e2014564118. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.2014564118

This evidence study, published in January 2021, came to the conclusion that widespread mask use in a community can reduce transmission of the coronavirus and that even “nonmedical masks have been effective in reducing transmission of respiratory viruses.” A few weeks ago, we wrote about how the majority of people were on board with mask mandates, and in this study, the researchers said those kinds of governmental mandates could add $1 trillion to the U.S. GDP. 

“We recommend that mask use requirements are implemented by governments, or, when governments do not, by organizations that provide public-facing services,” the researchers wrote, via PNAS.org. “… Given the value of the source control principle, especially for presymptomatic people, it is not sufficient for only employees to wear masks; customers must wear masks as well.”

But the researchers also made some interesting remarks about the history of mask-wearing during respiratory disease outbreaks throughout history. 

As noted by the paper, a doctor named Wu Lien-Teh was instrumental during the 1910 Manchurian plague, which had close to a 100% mortality rate and which killed 60,000 people in China. Wu identified a mask as “the principal means of personal protection.” Wrote the researchers, “Although Wu designed the cloth mask that was used through most of the world in the early 20th century, he pointed out that the airborne transmission of plague was known since the 13th century, and face coverings were recommended for protection from respiratory pandemics since the 14th century. Wu reported on experiments that showed a cotton mask was effective at stopping airborne transmission, as well as on observational evidence of efficacy for health care workers.”

Less than a decade later, masks were also an important tool in the fight against the 1918 flu pandemic. San Francisco, in particular, had good results from mask mandates in the first two waves of the pandemic. But by the third wave, people weren’t as interested in social distancing or staying away from social gatherings. By then, the mask mandate had been lifted.

As the San Francisco Chronicle wrote: “After four weeks of muzzled misery, San Francisco unmasked at noon yesterday and ventured to draw its breath. Despite the published prayers of the Health Department for conservation of gauze, the sidewalks and runnels were strewn with the relics of a torturous month.”

But a few weeks later, influenza cases began to rise, and thousands of Bay Area residents died. 

So, yes, we’ve known for a long time that masking up is key to keeping yourself and others healthy and helping stop the pandemic. Luckily, it seems that more people are more amenable to listening lately. 

In case you missed last week’s blog post, the spotlighted research showed that N95 and surgical masks drastically reduced the aerosols emitted when a person talks or coughs. My favorite line was this: “In other interesting news, researchers did an audio analysis of their subjects, and they determined that people talked louder when wearing a mask, but they did not cough more loudly.” 

Josh Katzowitz

Written by Josh Katzowitz