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The message about face masks coming from American health officials has never been especially clear.
When the coronavirus began spreading, officials seemed to be promoting two contradictory ideas: First, masks would not help keep people safe; and second, masks were so important that they should be reserved for doctors and nurses. It reminded me of the line credited to Yogi Berra about a New York restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore — it’s too crowded.”
The truth has become clearer in recent days. Masks probably do provide some protection. They’re particularly effective at keeping somebody who already has the virus from spreading it to others, and they may also make the mask’s wearer less likely to get sick. “Coronavirus appears to mostly spread when germ-containing droplets make it into a person’s mouth, nose, or eyes,” Vox’s German Lopez explains. “If you have a physical barrier in front of your mouth and nose, that’s simply less likely to happen.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention is now reviewing whether to encourage Americans to wear masks. That would be a reversal and come after weeks of discouraging mask use. Many journalists, including me, previously quoted the experts who urged ordinary people not to wear masks.
The whole situation has been a fiasco.
True, public health officials were in a difficult position. Masks are indeed more important for doctors, nurses and other front line health workers than for everyone else. Health care workers are at far greater risk of being exposed not only to the virus but also to dangerous levels of it. And if they do get sick, they could spread the virus further — and would be unavailable to treat others.
So what was the right solution? Zeynep Tufekci, a University of North Carolina professor, described it well in a Times Op-Ed more than two weeks ago. “The top-down conversation around masks has become a case study in how not to communicate with the public,” she wrote. Tufekci continued:
What should the authorities have said? The full painful truth. Despite warnings from experts for decades, especially after the near miss of SARS, we still weren’t prepared for this pandemic, and we did not ramp up domestic production when we could, and now there’s a mask shortage — and that’s disastrous because our front line health care workers deserve the best protection. Besides, if they fall ill, we will all be doomed. If anything, a call for people who hoarded masks to donate some of them to their local medical workers would probably work better than telling people that they don’t need them or that they won’t manage to make them work.
Imagine that: Unvarnished truth from high government officials about coronavirus.
For more …
In a Times Op-Ed, E. Tammy Kim explains how South Korea and Taiwan quickly increased production of masks — with government intervention: “America needs to do the same. The U.S. government, and state and municipal bodies, should immediately enter into large-scale contracts to produce masks that can be sold at an affordable, standard price.” Jennifer Lee has also written about Taiwan, for CNN Opinion.
Ferris Jabr, Wired: “When you look at photos of Americans during the 1918 influenza pandemic, one feature stands out above all else: masks. Fabric, usually white gauze, covers nearly every face. Across the country, public health experts recommended universal mask wearing, and some cities ordered residents to wear them under penalty of fine or imprisonment. The Red Cross made thousands of cloth masks and distributed them for free. Newspapers published instructions for sewing masks at home. ‘Make any kind of a mask … and use it immediately and at all times,’ the Boston commissioner of health pleaded. ‘Even a handkerchief held in place over the face is better than nothing.’”
Hannah Devlin, The Guardian: “Wearing a face mask is certainly not an iron-clad guarantee that you won’t get sick — viruses can also transmit through the eyes and tiny viral particles, known as aerosols, can penetrate masks. However, masks are effective at capturing droplets, which is a main transmission route of coronavirus, and some studies have estimated a roughly fivefold protection versus no barrier alone (although others have found lower levels of effectiveness). If you are likely to be in close contact with someone infected, a mask cuts the chance of the disease being passed on.”
Farhad Manjoo, The Times: “How to get your hands on a mask, when there are no masks? The internet has a plan: Make your own. Sewers and preppers have lately been flooding social media with designs for DIY masks made out of household materials — some T-shirt fabric, elastic ribbon and a little bit of stitching … homemade masks for all could make a huge difference. At least two peer-reviewed studies show that while DIY masks are not nearly as effective as commercial masks made for health care workers, they are far better than nothing.”