There’s a lot of noise and confusion over the use of masks to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, some of it inadvertent and some of it intentional. For the sake of American lives and the health of the economy, it’s time we straightened it out.

A mask is not a symbol of tyranny. It’s not a strike at one’s masculinity or personal autonomy. Wearing one, or not, should not be a reflection of your politics or worldview, and putting one on is not merely an empty signal that you take the virus seriously.

More and more, we are learning that masks work, and that they are critical to the success of the coming phase in the fight against COVID-19, when people once again become active outside their homes. Everything should be done to make sure Americans have masks and wear them when appropriate.

It’s taken a while to get to this point. Early on, experts, including the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the World Health Organization, said masks were not necessary.

However, that advice was based not so much on science but the fact that masks of all kinds were in short supply and officials felt they should be saved for health care providers who were in close proximity to infected patients.

After efforts large and small worked to produce cloth masks – and research on the new virus showed the efficacy of wearing face coverings – the official recommendations have changed.

It’s unfortunate it took so long. Early recommendations for widespread use of masks could have saved thousands of lives in the U.S. – it is certainly part of the reason that East Asian countries more culturally open to wearing them had better success fending off COVID-19.

That also means that lives can be saved moving forward, particularly as lockdowns end and people begin to move about.

A study released this week from Britain’s Cambridge and Greenwich Universities found that community-wide use of face coverings, when paired with social distancing, could prevent further waves of the virus.

A study in Germany found that masks reduce the daily growth rate of the virus by 40-60%, and perhaps more. A review of 172 studies on the matter also found a large reduction in the risk of getting COVID-19 if masks are widely adopted.

In the U.S., we are not there yet. A survey in April found that only one-third of Americans say they always wear a mask when out in public, with a third wearing one sometimes and a third not wearing them at all.

If we are going to successfully hold down the number of new cases through this summer and fall – until there is an effective vaccine, really – that has to change.

First, cloth masks should be widely available. In Hong Kong, they are available free through vending machines and the mail. Utah also has a mail program.

Second, leaders should lead by wearing masks at appropriate times.

Third, people should drop their preconceptions about what it means to wear a mask.

The fact is, it’s simple, it’s hardly invasive once you get used to it, and it’s the best way we can help keep the coronavirus at bay.


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