Latest research shows that voluntarily wearing masks cuts the community spread of the coronavirus

face shield or face masks
Photo via Official U.S. Navy Page/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

As research shows, wearing masks to protect yourself and others during a pandemic 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 best ways to slow transmission of the virus. 

Now that Joe Biden is the president, he’s written executive orders that mandate people wear masks while on federal land and on public transportation, and he’s been seen wearing face coverings more often in the three 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 in months. But it’s not over yet. January was the deadliest month since the pandemic began, and there are still heartbreaking stories of entire families dying from the coronavirus.

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, the latest research continues to show that person exactly where they should be looking to find out the truth on masks. 

–Rader, B., White, L., Burns, M., Chen, J., Brilliant, J., & Cohen, J. et al. (2021). Mask-wearing and control of SARS-CoV-2 transmission in the USA: a cross-sectional study. The Lancet Digital Health. (Jan 2021). Cross-sectional study

Throughout most of June and July, researchers studied cross-sectional online surveys of Americans 13 and older, and they showed that the “widespread reported use of face masks combined with physical distancing increases the odds of SARS-CoV-2 transmission control.” In other words, the more people wear masks (and the more they social distance), the more control the community has in slowing the spread of the virus.

More than 370,000 surveys were given in the summer of 2020 with questions about people’s mask-wearing habits when they were outside of the home. Those answers were compared to the public data on COVID-19, and researchers used models to determine the correlation between how many people wore masks and how much people were spreading the virus to one another in those communities. 

While it’s difficult to determine partisan identity (which affects mask-wearing), how consistent the responses were, and how much mask-wearing affects transmission rates vs. other hygiene recommendations, mask usage was higher among women and non-white ethnic group, older people, and people with lower income, according to the researchers. 

Apparently, 10% of increased mask usage resulted in three times better transmission control, and the researchers concluded that because “self-reported mask-wearing increased separately from government mask mandates … supplemental public health interventions are needed to maximize adoption and help to curb the ongoing epidemic.”

–It’s been well established that N95 masks are the face coverings that most protect the wearer from potentially being infected. But there continues to be an N95 mask shortage, and the government is still asking Americans not to buy those kinds of masks.

As NPR noted, the demand for N95s far exceeds the supply, and even the CDC still says, “Medical masks and N-95 respirators should not be used because they should be conserved for healthcare personnel.” President Joe Biden has invoked the Defense Production Act to speed up the production of PPE, including N95s, but healthcare workers are still being asked to reuse their masks. 

“In most of the hospitals, nurses are wearing their N95s for five shifts,” Mary Turner, president of the Minnesota Nurses Association and an ICU nurse who works with COVID-19 patients, told NPR. “It’s becoming the norm to not wear N95s the way they’re supposed to be used.”

In case you missed last week’s blog post, the spotlighted research showed that people have known for hundreds of years that masks could help stop pandemics. All you have to do is look at the 1910 Manchurian plague and a doctor named Wu Lien-Teh.

Written by Josh Katzowitz