The director of the Centres for Disease Control (CDC) is urging for universal use of face masks nationwide to decrease the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). Robert Redfield, MD, said on July 14 that if everyone across the country wore masks — while continuing to practice physical distancing and hand-washing guidelines — we could "bring this epidemic under control" within four to eight weeks, Forbes reports (note: in a tweet on July 15, he said four to six weeks). This is especially imperative because numbers are surging throughout most of the country, including in many states that were the first to reopen, according to The New York Times.
Dr. Redfield said in an interview with JAMA that more than 60,000 cases are being diagnosed every day and stated that he thinks "the data is clearly there that masking works." A paper that he and CDC colleagues published on the same day of the JAMA interview explains that "when asked to wear face coverings, many people think in terms of personal protection. But face coverings are also widely and routinely used as source control." This means the prevention of exposing other people to virus-containing respiratory droplets you may expel. It's increasingly important given the fact that some people may not have symptoms and airborne transmission through smaller aerosols has been reported as a possibility, especially in crowded indoor settings.
In the paper, these doctors acknowledge that while the use of face coverings has increased a great deal, there is continued resistance in part because some people don't think fabric masks made at home, for instance, are as effective in stopping the spread of the virus. However, the doctors say that cloth face coverings "can substantially limit forward dispersion of exhaled respirations that contain potentially infectious respiratory particles" including those smaller aerosols we mentioned earlier that linger in the air for longer periods of time. As for which are the most effective, store-bought cone-style masks and double-layered, well-fitted homemade ones take the win.
Other people argue there isn't enough data to show that universal masking is the way to go from a community standpoint as opposed to in a hospital setting with surgical masks. But, Dr. Redfield and his colleagues point to a report that shows universal masking in healthcare settings resulted in a steady decline of COVID-positive test results. This, they say, provides enough "practical, timely, and compelling evidence that community-wide face covering is another means to help control the national COVID-19 crisis."
The findings, they argue, showcase how effective masking can be in general when individuals cannot physically distance from one another. Plus, community-level protection due to a universal adoption of face masks might mean that "more societally disruptive community interventions such as stay-at-home orders and business closings" could ease up, they point out.
They also referenced a report that a universal masking policy in Springfield, Missouri, ensured two hair stylists who ended up testing positive for COVID-19 did not infect their clients. Before they were officially diagnosed, these hair stylists met with 139 clients but had been required to wear masks (clients also wore face masks). "After public health contact tracing with the hair salon clients and after 2 weeks of follow-up, no symptoms of COVID-19 were identified among the exposed clients or their secondary contacts," the doctors wrote in their paper.
In his interview with JAMA, Dr. Redfield concluded that wearing masks is one of our "weapons" against COVID-19. "Masking is not a political issue. It's a public health issue," he said. "It really is a personal responsibility for all of us." Not convinced? Here is another doctor's take on why everyone should wear face masks. And, for more information on face coverings, visit CDC.gov.