Are face masks effective against coronavirus?

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Just a few months ago there was a lot of debate about the effectiveness of face masks among health officials and politicians in different parts of the world. This caused confusion among the public about who should wear face masks, when to wear them, and if it was even effective. 

But now there are a growing number of studies that are confirming that face masks are effective in reducing the spread of COVID-19. The use of non-medical masks is most helpful when they are worn along with other safety measures including frequent handwashing and staying home if you don’t feel well. 

Of course, there are people who can’t wear masks including young children and people with medical conditions or disabilities. But if enough people around them wear masks, this can increase the level of safety for everyone. 

Countless lives saved from widespread face mask use

Face masks in public

Even before more studies about the effectiveness of face masks came out, several countries made it mandatory to wear face masks in public including Czech Republic (March 18, 2020), Vietnam (March 16, 2020), Austria (April 6, 2020), and Argentina (April 14, 2020).

Taiwan was particularly impressive. In a country of 24 million people, they currently have 462 cases (as of July 28, 2020), 7 deaths, and 440 recovered. Of the hundred countries that are affected, they have one of the lowest infection rates per capita at 1 in every 500,000 people.

In addition to limiting overseas travel, providing regular testing, and setting up monitoring systems, the government ensured that there was enough supply of masks for the public. They did this by increasing lines of production, implementing a rationing system, and made the price very affordable. 

A study in the Proceedings of the Natural Academy of the United States of America, mandatory face masks prevented over 78,000 over a month in Italy and prevented more than 66,000 infections during a three-week span in New York City. If that’s not enough reason to wear masks, we don’t know what is. 

The report stated, “We conclude that wearing of face masks in public corresponds to the most effective means to prevent interhuman transmission, and this inexpensive practice, in conjunction with simultaneous social distancing, quarantine, and contact tracing, represents the most likely fighting opportunity to stop the COVID-19 pandemic.”

The World Health Organization funded research reviewed 172 studies about the effectiveness of masks, eye protection, and physical distancing. They concluded that all of these measures work. The research was carried out in 16 countries on six continents.

Dr. David Harris, a Vancouver infectious disease physician, is one of the report’s co-authors. He said, “We’ve found masking . . . does help mitigate that risk transmission in the community.” 

Top scientists and doctors calling governments to require face coverings in public

Top scientists and doctors are recommending people wear face coverings in public
In May, more than 100 of the world’s top doctors and scientists signed an open letter calling on governments to require people to wear face coverings while they were out in public. 


A similar letter was
signed in Canada that called for the government to implement mandatory masks across the country with the exception of young children and people with medical conditions and disabilities. 

In May, more than 100 of the world’s top scientists and doctors signed an open letter calling for governments to require people to wear face coverings while in public.

Widespread mask use can control the second wave of coronavirus

British Scientists say that face masks could help control the second wave. They said, “We conclude that face mask use by the public, when used in combination with physical distancing or periods of lock-down, may provide an acceptable way of managing the COVID-19 pandemic and re-opening economic activity."

A study by the World Health Organization found people wearing masks in public are twice as effective at reducing COVID-19’s reproduction value than people wearing masks only after symptoms appear. Debbie Brinker, a Washington nurse educator, said, “There are many people who are positive for COVID who don’t have symptoms.”

Why were there mixed opinions about masks?Mixed opinions about face masks

While some government leaders took action quickly as soon as they had cases of coronavirus, others had mixed or changing opinions about the use of non-medical masks for the public. 

There are several reasons for differing opinions on masks. There were many doctors who said masks were ineffective in controlling the spread of coronavirus while others said they were effective. While there are still conflicting studies that show whether masks protect the wearer from getting infected with COVID-19, there is growing evidence that wearing masks help asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic from spreading it to other people.

Also, because there is such a shortage of supply of robust masks, particularly for health care workers like the N95 masks, some politicians discouraged the public from using these masks so there wouldn’t be a further shortage. 

In British Columbia, top doctors said that masks may give a false sense of security and lead to someone touching their face more often from adjusting the mask. Other health agencies shared this belief as well. But in May 2020, the opinion of top doctors in the province shifted and masks were recommended among the public where physical distancing wasn’t possible. 

For a long time, the World Health Organization was recommending that healthy people didn’t need to wear a mask. They said that the only people who needed to do so were people who were feeling unwell, coughing, sneezing or caring for someone who was infected with COVID-19. But on June 6, 2020 they changed their stance that is consistent with a growing number of doctors, scientists, and governments that are recommending that people wear masks in public, particularly where physical distancing is not possible. 

Face mask culture

Face masks at work

Long before coronavirus spread in Asia, much of the population was used to wearing masks to protect themselves largely from their experience trying to protect themselves from other diseases from the past like SARS in 2002 and 2006 with the bird flu pandemic. On a day-to-day basis, many people in Asia wear masks to protect themselves from pollutants, dust, or other contaminants. Every country affected by COVID-19 has a different level of acceptance to wear masks. 

In Japan, wearing masks started as far back as the 20th century when there was a massive pandemic of influenza that spread around the world. Over the century, earthquakes and industrialization affected the air quality which was another reason for regular mask use when going out in public. People in China and Korean also commonly wear masks throughout the year. With Asian countries, wearing masks isn’t just about protecting the wearer, helping to protect others as a main motivator.

In the West, there are many communities that still feel uncomfortable wearing masks, don’t believe it’s effective, or simply don’t like the fact that the government is telling them to do so. But overall, masks have become more accepted and a growing number of government bodies are either recommending widespread mask use in public or making masks mandatory with the exception of people with certain health issues and young children. 

While there are many people who don’t believe in the effectiveness of masks, a growing number of people in the West are comfortable wearing masks on a regular basis. The endless styles and customization people can do with their masks these days creates a less fearful environment in public and allows people to express their personal style. 

A survey conducted by the Leger and Association for Canadian Studies survey showed that a growing number of Canadians are wearing protective face masks in response to the anticipated second wave of COVID-19. 

  • 80% believe it’s an individual’s responsibility to try to prevent a second wave 
  • 67% believe the government should maintain the current, cautious pace of opening businesses and services
  • 53% of respondents say masks should be mandatory in public and confined spaces like shopping malls and public transit.  

Conclusion

A few months ago there was a lot of confusion among the public about the effectiveness of face masks in protecting people from COVID-19. But a growing number of studies are showing that widespread face mask use among the public is effective in combating coronavirus, especially when masks are used in conjunction with frequent handwashing and staying at home if someone isn’t feeling well.

Over 100 top scientists and doctors around the world are calling on governments to require people to wear face coverings in public with the exception of young children and people with medical conditions or disabilities.