Alexa Marsh ’21 News Reporter
As the total number of cases of COVID-19 in the United States exceeds 800,000 and the death toll continues to surge, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has advised that everyone wear a cloth mask when going out in public. Such recommendations, encouraging Americans to wear masks, run contrary to earlier statements by public health officials. Originally, in an effort to conserve the United States’ alarmingly limited supply of personal protective equipment and due to a lack of information about the transmissibility of the virus, the CDC expressed that only health care workers and sick individuals needed to wear masks and even suggested that masks could cause more harm than good by encouraging people to touch their faces more frequently. However, changing policies surrounding issues such as mask-wearing can only be expected, as scientists were unaware of how the novel coronavirus would behave when it first emerged in December.
As researchers have learned more about how the highly contagious coronavirus spreads, calls by health experts advocating that all Americans wear cloth masks in public have escalated. The CDC hoped to emphasize that wearing masks is beneficial for citizens all across the nation, as it is becoming more and more difficult to determine “hot spots” since the virus has spread throughout the country and transmits so easily. Wearing masks in public is critical, as it has become evident that people can transmit the virus without demonstrating any symptoms, making it almost impossible to differentiate between sick and healthy individuals without testing. Meeting demands for testing, along with the lack of personal protective equipment, has been a major struggle for the United States. Though the country ramped up testing significantly, it is still limited, so wearing masks is crucial, since without adequate testing asymptotic individuals can unknowingly spread the virus.
Health officials are largely crediting masks for controlling the spread of the virus in countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan. When asked what mistakes other countries were making in attempting to contain the virus, George Gao, the director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, stated that “the big mistake in the U.S. and in Europe is that people are not wearing masks.” Gao explained that because the virus is transmitted by close contact and droplets, which always come out of the mouth even when speaking, masks are essential to prevent these droplets from escaping and affecting others.
The CDC stressed that this recommendation applies to cloth masks, including those that are homemade, as opposed to just hospital-grade surgical masks and N95 masks, stating that such masks are “critical supplies that must continue to be reserved for healthcare workers and other medical first responders.” Experts have been clear, though, that masks cannot act as a substitute for more effective strategies to prevent the spread of the virus, such as social distancing. However, in situations in which you must leave your home, wearing a mask is highly encouraged in order to prevent droplet transmission. In addition to the clear benefits of masks to act as a filter that blocks droplets, Dr. Joe Allen, assistant professor of exposure assessment science at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, highlighted the psychological impact of wearing a mask. Dr. Allen commented that when we are out in public wearing masks, we are “signaling this is a pandemic, we’re aware this is happening, and I’m doing my part in this.”