To Wear or Not to Wear: What’s Really the Deal with the Masks?

Recently, there has been a lot of debate about whether or not wearing a face mask or covering is actually doing anything to prevent transmission of the novel Coronavirus. Honestly, at the very beginning of this whole situation (back in March), I was pretty embarrassed to be wearing a mask in public because I felt like I was the only person doing it. Now, things have changed drastically, seeing as wearing a mask in public is pretty much mandated in every state at this point. To make matters even more complicated, different media outlets are offering different viewpoints on this discussion, so how do we know which are true and which are not? It is super important to make sure that you are getting your information from reputable sources when making an informed decision on about whether or not you think a mask is offering any protection at all.

So, why have masks become mandated if there still seems to be circulating evidence that they may not help? While I honestly have not found any reputable sources claiming and backing up their inefficacy, there seem to be many claims by the public that masks are ineffective at slowing the spread. However, if you turn to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s (CDC) Considerations for Wearing Masks page, the CDC offers several reasons as to why the public should engage in mask wearing in public spaces. The most important reason for these guidelines is arguably that masks prevent the spread of the virus from infected individuals to non-infected individuals. Simply put, if someone infected is wearing a mask, the likelihood of them transmitting droplets to another individual in close proximity goes down DRASTICALLY. So, for everyone claiming that you wearing a mask won’t protect you from inhaling droplets, you’re kind of right. But that’s not the point. The point is to protect others by wearing your mask in the event that you are infected without your knowing.

This image depicts the science behind mask wearing in the community and how it slows the spread of COVID-19. This image was taken from the CDC’s Considerations for Wearing Masks article.

Okay, so now we know the CDC is encouraging mask wearing in all public areas. That’s a pretty good indication that the masks are beneficial to the general public in slowing transmission if the CDC is arguing for them. In response to the CDC’s reasoning, you might think, well why are people who have COVID-19 even out in public? Shouldn’t they be quarantining at home? The answer to that is yes, however, many infected individuals (especially of the college age) have tested positive asymptomatically! These individuals have no indication of being sick and would otherwise continue their normal activities. However, mask mandates help to keep the transmission from these unknowingly affected individuals at bay. In an article from the Mayo Clinic, the staff emphasize that the reason we didn’t mandate masks earlier on in the pandemic was due to a lack of knowledge of the extent at which infected individuals could spread the disease prior to symptoms occurring. We now know that the virus can run its course in an individual with no symptoms occurring. Both incubating individuals and asymptomatic carriers can unknowingly spread the disease to others if proper precautions are not taken. The Mayo Clinic article also emphasizes the guidelines provided by the previously mentioned CDC and support from the World Health Organization (WHO) in recommendations for slowing the spread.

Another article published by the BBC also touches on the emerging information regarding asymptomatic carriers, claiming that the number of asymptomatic infected individuals can account for nearly one third of all positive cases. At first, it was believed that the asymptomatic infected individuals were not very contagious, but now, it is believed that these people are still as contagious as symptomatic individuals and could have been responsible for nearly 80% of the positive virus cases in China. The article also mentions that a Hong Kong study has shown evidence that up to 44% of virus transmission from infected individuals can happen prior to the individuals showing any symptoms. While the BBC does not make a claim on the effectiveness of wearing a mask to slow the transmission of the virus from these silent carriers, one could easily pull together resources from the CDC and these statistics to make an informed decision to wear a mask in public, not to protect yourself, but out of sheer consideration for those at risk around you.

Overall, there is A LOT of information out there about the mask situation. It can be hard to try and pick out what is true and what isn’t. There are currently lots of studies going on that are trying to crack the code about the effectiveness of masks and which type of masks are better than others, but it may be awhile before the public hears the results of these studies. It’s a scary time in the world right now, especially with all the new information regarding silent carriers. Could I have already been/am I currently infected? I very well could be and have not the slightest clue. So, in the meantime, it isn’t that hard to just decide to wear the damn mask in the chance that it does actually help slow transmission.

This is one of my favorite depictions on why we should wear a face mask. This photo comes from a Reddit page.

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