At long last, we have made a truly game-changing scientific breakthrough in preventing the spread of COVID-19. The impact of this breakthrough seems almost too good to be true.
We have found a disease control tool that, when used properly, can dramatically reduce the person-to-person transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. Studies have shown that this tool could reduce transmission by somewhere between 50% and 85%. The tool is cheap and remarkably low-tech. You can even make one at home. It has no significant side effects. And with each passing day, the scientific research showing the tool’s effectiveness gets stronger and stronger.
If this tool were a vaccine or medicine, we’d be high-fiving each other and popping the champagne, knowing we’d discovered a crucial means to help prevent the spread of the pandemic.
I’m talking, of course, about face masks—cloth, surgical, or even a bandanna. Face masks block the spread of respiratory droplets that can carry the novel coronavirus. But just as with so many other aspects of the response to COVID-19—including mass testing, contact tracing, and the early use of stay-at-home orders—the U.S. is once again squandering this opportunity.
In many countries that have so far successfully controlled their COVID-19 epidemics, public health leaders, politicians, and the public have fully embraced the use of face masks with no hint of controversy. A recent study found that countries where masks were widely used soon after their COVID-19 outbreak began were more likely to keep their death rates low and to have a shorter outbreak. Countries like Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam that quickly adopted masking, along with other control measures such as social distancing and track and trace, have reported fewer than 6 deaths per million residents as a result of COVID-19.
Yet in the U.S., where the death rate from COVID-19 is now 379 per million people, face masks have been weaponized for partisan purposes. Taking their cues from President Trump, who has refused to appear on camera wearing a face mask and has said that Americans who wear masks are doing so to show their disapproval of him, many of his supporters now see wearing a face mask as an affront to personal liberty. According to the Washington Post, Republican leaders “are less likely to mandate them, and Republican voters are more likely to forgo, and even scorn, them.” Health officials who have promoted mask mandates have quit their jobs after receiving death threats.
As a result of this alarming polarization, only 18 states and the District of Columbia are mandating face masks in public across the whole state. Only two—Massachusetts and Maryland—have Republican governors. Meanwhile, many Republican-led states are actively trying to subvert local measures. Nebraska Governor Pete Ricketts has gone so far as to say he will withhold federal coronavirus relief funds from local governments if they try and mandate mask use in their places of work.
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