How many reusable face masks or face coverings do you own? Two? Three? More than four?
Before March, for many Americans the idea of having a collection of face masks in their wardrobe was laughable. Now you can buy them online, in stores, in this season’s colors, or branded with popular logos.
It was unthinkable a year ago that almost everywhere you went in the US, people’s faces would be obscured by a mask or face covering. Today, it’s our new normal.
On April 3, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that Americans wear a face mask in all public spaces to prevent the spread of COVID-19. And on April 8, New Jersey became the first state to mandate the wearing of face coverings at essential businesses and construction sites. Now, 34 states and the District of Columbia have some sort of mask mandate in place.
What are the chances Americans will continue to wear their masks to prevent the spread of other diseases after the pandemic is over?
Masks and COVID-19
In a study released in June, researchers from across the US found that airborne transmission of COVID-19 is “highly virulent” and the dominant way the virus spreads. Face coverings, the researchers concluded, are the best defense we have for preventing airborne transmission.
This is primarily because face-coverings prevent particles from spreading from a person’s mouth into the air around them, Dr. Dean Winslow, a professor of medicine at the Stanford University Medical Center, told The Globe Post.
“It’s very clear that masks are important. Just from an experimental basis, we know that masks are … actually very effective in reducing the generation of these small particle aerosols which we feel now are very important in transmitting SARS-Cov-2,” he said, “particularly in the indoor environment, since these small particle aerosols can remain suspended in relatively still air for several hours.”
An important part of mask-wearing is remembering that masks protect other people from you, rather than the other way around. If you cough, sneeze, or even breathe while unknowingly infected with the virus, a mask over your mouth and nose prevents COVID-19 from spreading through the air.
“The recommendation to wear masks really comes from the idea that there are people out there that are infected and are contagious but don’t know it,” Dr. Amesh Adalja, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security, told The Globe Post. “What a face-covering does is prevent you from spreading it to others. It’s a form of source control.”
Will Masks Protect Against Other Diseases?
The evidence is so strong that face coverings are an effective way to stem the spread of COVID-19, but now that they’re accessible to so many people, they can be used as source control for other diseases, too.
Adalja thinks that it’s more likely than ever that Americans could continue to wear masks when they’re sick with other illnesses.
“Because [people have] gotten experience with masks and had to grapple with some of the evidence and the benefits and the roles that masks can play, I do think that people who are sick and have to go out may find themselves more likely to do so, or be reminded by other people that they should do that,” Adalja said.
One major obstacle to this, according to Boris Lushniak, the dean of the University of Maryland School of Public Health, is that face masks are still viewed through a political lens.
Mask wearing is an important, objective public health tool to help mitigate the coronavirus pandemic. However, people who don’t “believe” in the science resist wearing masks to show they’re not afraid of the virus, Lushniak told The Globe Post.
He added that face masks are still much more pervasive than they were before the pandemic. That fact alone eliminates the stigma of wearing a face mask, making it much more likely that people will continue to wear masks once the pandemic subsides to combat the spread of other diseases.
“I think we’re going to enter a generation now where the mask is no longer a standout,” Lushniak said. “I think what we’re going to do now is get used to this idea that, ‘You know, I’m not feeling well during flu season, maybe I’ll put on a mask to protect others from me.’”
Beyond the flu, masks could even decrease the transmission of the common cold.
Adalja recognizes that most of the time, people with colds continue to go to school, work, and to the grocery store, despite their illness.
“If those individuals wore a mask, the ones who are visibly sick … that would decrease transmission,” he said.
At least for the next year, Winslow predicts, mask-wearing, along with other behaviors we’ve adopted to decrease COVID-19 transmission, like social distancing and elbow bumping, will remain commonplace in the US.
“I don’t see, at least in the next year, people returning to behavior as normal just because of the legitimate fear factor,” he said.
But, Lushniak says, despite the fact that we’re still in the midst of the pandemic, it’s time to start evaluating these behaviors now and taking stock of how COVID-19 has affected the future of our culture.
“What are we learning from ourselves, about our interactions with our families, with our communities, with our states, our regions, our nation?” he asked. “I think this is a perfect time to say, ‘How is this, ultimately, going to change us?’”